Ritual purity is definitely one of the more frustrating subjects within Egyptian Theology. For newcomers to Egyptian religion, the concept and its applications can feel quite daunting. Many long-practicing Kemetics likewise struggle with feelings of inadequacy, that they are for whatever reason not “pure enough” to even approach the Gods in-shrine. Days, weeks, months, or even years can elapse between ritual/shrine sessions due to stress and discouragement over ritual purity.
Before we delve into how we can personally approach and reconcile ourselves as Modern Kemetics with this concept, let us first briefly examine a few Ancient Egyptian ideas and practices regarding what once constituted satisfactory ritual purity.
P E R S O N A L A P P E A R A N C E A N D H Y G I E N E
I N A N T I Q U I T Y
According to the inscriptions on the walls of the Late Period temple at Esna, all authorized persons entering the temple were expected to at least have their nails trimmed, their heads and bodies entirely shaved (so as to avoid louse infestations), to be dressed in linen, their hands washed with natron, their feet shod with papyrus sandals (though some New Kingdom accounts specify that leather sandals could serve as part of ritual outfit as well, despite popular misconception), and they were required to have abstained from any and all sexual intercourse for several days before setting foot in the temple. The Hellenic historian Herodotus reports on Egyptian purity protocols similarly. (3) As an extension of purity standards related to sex, males were circumcised at puberty, and historian John Baines argues it is likely that females were also circumcised for similar reasons. (1)
Water was heavily involved in Ancient Egyptian purification rituals. All temples of major significance possessed ablution tanks / “Sacred Lakes,” or what Art Historians refer to as “reflecting pools.” These are man-made, rectangular bodies of water constructed outside a temple, but still located on temple grounds. This “Sacred Lake” at the temple of Hathor at Dendera is now home to a small palm grove, but once served the purpose of holding sacred water with which to wash the limbs of authorized visitors to the temple.
In addition, w’ab (‘purifier’ or ‘purified’) priests were required to rinse their mouths out with a solution of water and natron and rub their bodies down with special unguents before being permitted to enter a temple. A judicial document now on display at the Turin Museum relays to us that a w’ab priest of Khnum had sworn not to enter the temple at Yebu (Elephantine) until he had spent ten days drinking nothing but natron solution! However, he had in fact entered after only seven days. He was therefore declared ritually impure and punished in accordance with the nature of his transgressions. (3)
D I E T A R Y R E S T R I C T I O N S
I N A N T I Q U I T Y
Taboos revolving around the consumption of certain foods were central to Egyptian life.
It may come as a surprise to many of us that the Ancient Egyptians, at least during later periods of History, viewed the consumption of beans and lentils as taboo. Diodorus Siculus, writing in the 1st century BCE, explains the rationale behind this priestly restriction. He states that the Ancient Egyptians believed “if everyone were allowed to eat everything, something would run out.” (3) However, beans and lentils likely made up a large portion of the peasant diet, so this taboo likely didn’t effect the non-priestly echelons.
The bulti fish (Oreochromis niloticus), a species of Nile-dwelling tilapia, was forbidden to certain persons in certain regions, as it was closely associated with Osiris, and revered for its symbolic association with the concepts of spontaneous creation and rebirth. In Plutarch’s (distorted) version of the Osiris myth, Osiris’ dismembered penis ended up in the river Nile, and was eaten by three types of fish: the Lepidotus carp, the Mormyrus kannume oxyrynchus, and the phragus. (3) Certain species of Schilbid catfishes may have quite possibly been off the menu for Egyptians in the Northern Delta region, due to their sacred ties to the Goddess Hatmehyt of Djedet. (4) However, fish was generally considered unclean because its consumption fouled the breath, and this is the most likely reason for its prohibition, at least among priests. The word for “stink,” henes, was written with the hieroglyphic sign of the Petrocephalus bane fish. The hieroglyph representing the Barbus bynni fish was employed in the writing of the word bwt, or “abomination.” (3) Another potential explanation for the prohibition of fish may have had to do with their association with the sea, a place of great anti-Cosmic disorder. There is, however, considerable evidence which confirms the consumption of fish throughout Egypt, so a fish that was taboo in one region may have been acceptably eaten in another. Indeed, some Delta region settlements began as fishing towns. (4) Archaeological evidence has shown that the most numerous of all the food remains found in floor deposits of the main chapel of the Walled Village at Tell el-Amarna are fish bones. (3)
Pigs were considered unfit for consumption for ritual purity reasons during certain periods of Egyptian History that saw the God Set fall into the undeserving position of boogeyman, due to the pig’s association with the God Set, and Set’s association with foreign oppressors and malevolent forces. (2) More logically, a pork taboo likely originated from the severe illness (trichinosis) caused by its consumption if the meat was not preserved and cooked properly. Pork taboos were, and still are, quite widespread in the Near and Middle East. Pigs are incredibly difficult and expensive to raise in arid climes, so naturally their cultivation and consumption would be discouraged.
As the inscriptions on the walls of the Late Period temple of Esna indicate, at least for priests, abstinence from certain foods was necessary for a period of about four days before entering the temple, or celebrating religious festivals. (3)
R I T U A L P U R I T Y I N T H E M O D E R N D A Y
Most of what we have in regard to religious protocol comes from temple standards — and a temple was well-staffed, and all duties to the Gods were not relegated to one person alone. If one of those priests “called in sick” on any given day, another could carry out his duties in his stead. By comparison, what we know of individual, everyday, outside-the-temple, non-priestly purity is quite limited.
In spite of these changes, and in spite of the lack of documentation on non-priests’ lives and requirements, many Modern practitioners of pre-Christian religions seek to adhere closely to antiquated models that aren’t plausible or sensible in a Modern context. Not everyone is functional as, nor capable of being, a priest, so to hold oneself to a priestly standard is highly unrealistic for the majority of us. To reiterate, we no longer have stately temples belonging to a relatively organized Egyptian State religion. We no longer have the benefit of the wealth of entire kingdoms or a unified State to support us with the capital and personnel such a colossal religious endeavor would require.
Most of us share our homes with our icons of the Gods. In Antiquity (excluding the Amarna Period), the cult icon had its own temple sanctuary, the hwt Ntr, and very few priests were authorized to come into contact with the cult icon in the innermost sanctum of any given temple. (3) Most people only saw cult icons during certain festivals, when said icons were processed publicly outside the temple. Before the advent of the peristyle court of the Late Period, non-priests were only allowed as far as the temple gateway, and thus did not come into any contact with the cult icon, visual or physical. (3) Our manner of interaction with the Gods’ icons — and the Gods Themselves — has changed drastically, having become incredibly more personal. The requirements of these relationships have changed with time, and it must be acknowledged that they have changed, lest we hold ourselves to stubborn, unadaptable, antiquated standards of worship with which we cannot keep up.
Put simply, many standards that once constituted ritual purity, though not all, have become entirely outmoded, or have since become irrelevant. Perhaps for the better, particularly in regard to circumcision: none of us need to have our foreskins or clitorises removed in order to be initiated into adulthood or understand religious Mysteries. This is not to say that there are not, or ought not to be, any ritual standard of cleanliness, however. Our Modern standards of personal hygiene exceed the better portion of Ancient standards of hygiene. With the advent of effective delousing treatments, we don’t necessarily need to shave to stay louse-free. And while our lives are certainly not parasite-free, we tend to live in cleaner environments than were typically experienced in Antiquity. For instance, we have indoor plumbing, and don’t have to trek to the local well or the river or to a temple to ritually wash ourselves — we simply draw a bath in our own homes. Washing with mild, non-antibacterial soap and water meets the requirement of basic cleanliness before entering into the shrine.
Many of the Antique protocols regarding hygiene are no longer necessary. What is necessary, though, is that one wash before ritual. Basic Modern hygienic requirements are sufficient. But for the purpose of altering the mind-body state, natron is often used. Ascribing it sacred qualities, and then washing ourselves with a material we recognize as being sacred, if not supernatural, helps put us “in the mood” for ritual. Something akin to the placebo effect. Now, none of this is intended to diminish whatever importance one places on natron use; rather, it is intended to explain what it does. Its use in individual practice is optional. If one can achieve a better mind-body state for ritual without it, one needn’t feel forced to use it.
Unless it does something for one’s mind-body state, it is not wholly necessary for one to resort to washing one’s mouth with natron solution, nor does one need to be punished for not drinking a saline solution for days on-end as though lavaging the gastrointestinal tract in preparation for an endoscopy (engaging in that practice for extended periods of time is a major health risk, in fact). We possess the miracles that are floss and toothpaste, which are far more thorough when it comes to hygiene, ergo ritual cleanliness. Floss and toothpaste are all that’s truly needed when it comes to making one’s breath clean and fresh enough for the Gods’ presence.
Dietary restrictions in a Modern context are highly personal. While abstaining from consuming certain fish was de rigueur for adherents and priests of certain cults in Antiquity, it is no longer required — except among some priests in the Kemetic Orthodox tradition. Ancient diets and dietary restrictions don’t necessarily accommodate diseases and conditions related to the gastrointestinal tract we are aware of today, and are thus largely outmoded. As long as one doesn’t become sick as the result of one’s diet and habits, and the Gods don’t relegate an item to taboo status for an individual, whatever one eats and does in daily life should be fine and not interfere with ritual purity. Even in Antiquity, as previously demonstrated, dietary taboos were exceptionally subjective, varying from region to region, from time period to time period, from cult to cult. There was no universal consensus on what all priests and all non-priests were required to eat and drink in order to maintain a state of ritual purity. It is no different today. If one feels compelled to avoid fish, pork, mutton, etc., that is entirely up to the individual, and whatever understandings one has between one’s Gods — and nutritionist.
When one obsesses over pre-ritual details, one completely undermines the entire purpose of ritual preparation. Ritual is by inherent design an act of “intellectual decompression,” or in other words, altering the mind-body state. If one is distracted by every manner of detail, if one’s mind is cluttered and one’s body agitated, one will accomplish nothing — aside from achieving a state of anxiety that only serves to encourage the undermining of one’s sense of self-worth.
If the Ancient Egyptians told us to jump off a high bridge into shallow water in the name of ritual purity, does that mean we Modern Kemetics should? Of course not! One needn’t take a knife to one’s genitals or discard one’s wool sweaters or avoid every product that comes from a pig in order to be ritually pure. Ritual purity is a psycho-somatic state of calmness, a receptive state in which individuals may commune with the Gods openly and freely. Ritual purity essentially constitutes whatever methods and motions make us feel prepared to speak to or do business with the Gods, with respect for what the Gods of our understanding require of us personally. If an individual wishes to adhere to the Ancient motions and protocols of ritual purity to the letter, that is entirely up to that individual. But one should not feel “conscripted” into doing anything that violates their person in any manner, nor violate whatever understandings one has with the God(s) of one’s understanding.
O N T H E I S S U E O F I L L N E S S , D I S A B I L I T Y ,
A N D M E N S T R U A T I O N
If one is physically ill, struggling with mental illness, disabled, or otherwise hurting, that does not mean one is not fit for the Gods’ sight. It is precisely during times of trouble that we must seek out a state of calm, seek out the Gods, and be in Their presence. The maintenance of Divine relationships is paramount, and the ill, disabled, and the wounded are every bit as good and deserving as the healthy. It is by no means a “replacement” for medical treatment or psychological therapy, to be sure, but one’s practice should not be allowed to atrophy. Seeking out the Gods in our darkest hour can mean the difference between “life” and “just existing,” or Gods forefend, death. Fears of impurity and “not being good enough” should be left at the proverbial door.
If on any given day one is feeling too “icky” from a cold or in too much pain to concentrate in shrine, requiring rest, it is perfectly reasonable not to attend shrine or participate in ritual that day. Again, being sick or in pain does not mean one is a terrible, unfit excuse for a human being — it simply means one might not have the ability to concentrate on the Gods or ritual at that time, and should focus instead on resting and regaining one’s strength, so as to be able to return to one’s duties in the right state of mind and body. Unlike the priesthoods of yore, we as individual, often isolated Kemetics do not have a veritable army of “backup priests” who can fulfill our duties when we’re feeling under the weather. But the Gods undoubtedly understand this.
Menstruation is a bit of a touchier subject. Some assert that menses attract malevolent spirits, and that doing anything of a ritual nature will attract bad luck due to the impure, unclean state a woman is in during that particular part of her fertility cycle, just as one is ritually impure after the unhygienic act of exchanging bodily fluids via sexual intercourse. Some Kemetic women may also have personal understandings between themselves and the Gods that they are not to enter Their shrines while menstruating.
Conversely, some women have no issue with being in-shrine or articulating heka when menstruating, nor have the Gods told them in any fashion that they and their bleeding vaginas should stay out of the Gods’ sight. They simply wash themselves before bringing themselves before the Gods, as they would at any other point during their fertility cycle. If a woman is experiencing excruciating cramps or heavy flow, yes, it is totally understandable that a woman wouldn’t engage in shrine or ritual activities. The crippling pain and constant threat of bleeding through one’s clothing is a colossal distraction. Rest, a heating pad, and over-the-counter painkillers usually take precedence over religious activities in that instance. While some Kemetics may be inclined to disagree with one-another over this subject and many others, it is clearly an individual and circumstantial issue that no exhaustive debate can truly settle.
It is important to note that, when it comes to special heka rituals or “magical workings” and “State rites” as per, say, Kemetic Orthodoxy, it is advisable to adhere to the temple purity standards expressed by the group one is participating in and with — for instance, washing with natron and abstaining from participation when menstruating. As the old adage goes, “when in Rome, do as the Romans do.” But on a personal, individual level, particularly when it comes to daily devotions, all that should ever be done is what delivers the best results, best pleases the Gods, as fulfills the understandings the individual has with Them.
M O R E O N R I T U A L P U R I T Y , P U R I F I C A T I O N
R I T U A L S , A N D R I T U A L P R E P A R A T I O N
- Kemetic Round Table : Ritual Purity Link Roundup
- “For Isfet Has Been Driven Away” : Self, Space, and Object Purification
- Devo Magix : Cleansings
- The Kemetic Priesthood : Then and Now
- Ritual Purity – A Compendium of Instructions
- Kemetic Spirituality
- Rituelle Reinheit
I N S I G H T O N M A I N T A I N I N G R E L I G I O U S
P R A C T I C E A N D D I V I N E R E L A T I O N S H I P S
- Staying in Touch
- On Praise and Prayer
- The Gods Are Neither Stupid Nor Forgetful
- Thank You My Lord Hermes
- Know Thyself
- All of Me
- A Few Things to Consider About Hard Polytheism
- Hearing the Gods
- Pagan Blog Project : Quiet
- When the Well Runs Dry
- To Err is (Human) Divine
W O R K S C I T E D
(1) Baines, John. Leonard H. Lesko. David P. Silverman. Religion in Ancient Egypt – Gods, Myths, and Personal Practice. Ithaca : Cornell University Press, 1991. Print.
(2) Meeks, Dimitri. Christine Favard-Meeks. Daily Life of the Egyptian Gods. Ithaca : Cornell University Press, 1996. Print.
(3) Oakes, Lorna, and Lucia Gahlin. Ancient Egypt : An Illustrated Reference to the Myths, Religions, Pyramids, and Temples of the Land of the Pharaohs. London : Hermes House, 2002. Print.
(4) Redford, Donald B. City of the Ram-Man : The Story of Ancient Mendes. Princeton : Princeton University Press, 2010. Print.