Monday, June 27, 2011

Interview with Tamika, Kemetic Reconstructionist

Today marks the beginning of an ongoing series which will spotlight individual black pagans, our beliefs, traditions and practices. 
In publishing these interviews once a month (at least), it is my goal to present the full spectrum of the black pagan community from A to Z, from ATR to Wicca -- I couldn’t think of one that started with the letter “z,” but if any of y’all are into Zoroastrianism please let me know! 
Anyone wishing to have their story told please drop me an email at theblackpagan@gmail.com
I’m happy to introduce Tamika, a 28-year-old visual artist living in New York City who practices Kemetic Reconstruction. 


BlackPagan: First, what kind of art do you do?
Tamika: I do a lot of tribal-style abstract work, and after reading about Chaos Magick and its use of sigils (symbols created and used to reprepsent/manifest a need, want or desire), I went on to transform that into the basis for much of my current work. I also paint/draw symbols from Kemet and other traditions, and I do a lot of pen and marker work. (Note: Tamika's work, Kemet Sigilry, can be found on facebook at: http://www.facebook.com/pages/Kemet-Sigilry/193227434041836)
Can you talk a bit about what Kemetic Reconstruction (Orthodoxy) is?
Kemetic Reconstruction--as it's coined by the Neopagan community--is essentially the revival of the original religious beliefs, practices, and interaction with the deities or "Netjeru" of Ancient Egypt. "Kemet" is from the old language, which means "black land", referring to the soil on the banks of the Nile River in opposition to the "red land" or "desert." 
This isn't a "death worshipping" cult or some regurgitated "battle between good and evil" concept. The path embraces BALANCE (cosmic and material), LIFE and its cycles, and connection with the earth. We do not only worship Isis or Auset--there are more than 42 Netjeru including Auset, and ALL have a function or a role in the "grand scheme" (as I call it).
Is Kemetic Orthodoxy the same thing as Ma’at?  
"Ma'at" or "Divine Law" is the backbone of Kemetic Orthodoxy. There are 42 "laws" called "The Declarations of Ma’at" or "Declarations of Innocence," which are said by you after the physical body dies and your spirit is taken before the Netjeru for your heart to be weighed.  Think of it as a sort of moral code, and the individual's job is to live a life in accordance to that code. (Of course, we're not perfect.) Precursor to the Ten Commandents, basically.
What drew you to Kemetic Reconstruction?
I'd always been drawn to Kemet; I loved to look at the pictures of artifacts, pyramids, temples and sarcophagi growing up. As I grew older, I made a point to read about it when I could. So the interest had always been there, just not the accessibility. It wasn't until I was in my early 20s [and] started to find books on Kemet and the religious practices that I started following the old ways.
How long have your been practicing Kemetic Reconstruction? How did you get into it? What has been your experience of it spiritually?
I've been practicing actively for the last four years; I had no idea what I was doing was a "reconstructionist" movement until very recently. I got into it like most would: through a book. The book was written by Kala Trobe (the name of it escapes me) and had several chapters on different Netjeret (goddess/es) from Kemet. While I read the whole book, it was only those chapters I kept going back to. 
For me, it was a matter of resonance. I enjoyed reading about Astarte, Kali, Hera and the others. I even followed the Roman pantheon for a long time since I was studying astrology. But it was with the Kemet deities that I felt a stronger, deeper resonance with. Not merely the whole ancestral trip, but something infinitely more powerful than even that, which is probably why it came naturally to me than other paths. 
The experience has been EPIC for that reason. The layperson tends to think that these deities stopped [and] "died" after the Romans came along and ransacked Alexandria, that they don't "exist" in the same context as they feel that Jesus Christ "exists." That couldn't be farther from the truth, as the Netjeru do live very much in their images and artifacts. They do have power. They do have voices. They CAN interact with you. They are willing to teach and guide you--if you're willing to listen.
I want to note that this path is not for the "armchair" or "fluffybunny" type. This path is very visceral. These people in their time treated magic like a science, and it REALLY DOES WORK. The Netjeru also do not like to be associated with other pantheons (from my experience). 
They are very much an individual collective, and want to be treated as such. They are extremely old, and therefore have a lot of power. A lot of responsibility comes with tapping into this power, and They WILL hold you accountable. In less words and to be blunt, They don’t have time for games or a "glancing interest." Either you're in or you're not and if you're in, you'd better be ready to handle their influence.
Can you describe some of your practices, which gods do you worship?
The Netjeret (goddess) Sekhmet has been my patroness for a very long time. Trite as it might sound, I didn't choose Her--She came to me. Sekhmet is a solar deity, therefore associated with fire. 
The more popular of her myths is the one where she is sent forth by the Netjer Ra to punish humanity for being insolent and disrespectful. However, that's only her destructive aspect. She was venerated by many doctors as a healer, by priests/esses as a powerful sorceress, soldiers to give them strength in battle, and the royal house as a protective deity.
My practices include invocation of Her and of other Netjeru, as I respect and honor them all. I also have an altar dedicated to Sekhmet in my home where I leave offerings--this goes back to the line about maintaining balance earlier on. The altar acts as a focus point for not only the practicioner, but for the deity as well. You give them a place to manifest so they can in turn, manifest to YOU. 
The offerings represent the exchange between human and divine. For general ritual work, I use "hekau": "words of power" from the original temple/tomb inscriptions, as they were written in the context they were written. These passages didn't just tell stories, they were and still are very functional. They DO work. Even so little as reading a hymn to a particular Netjer with emphasis can yield results. 
When I invoke Sekhmet or another Netjeru, I DO NOT "DISMISS" OR "RELEASE" THEM. The practice and belief is that the interaction between the divine and humanity is a balancing act. Just as you are here, so are they. And just as they are divine, so are you. Just you speak, they listen. And if they speak, you had better listen. There is no detachment between the practitioner and the deity: they become intertwined, and the deity is a part of you. Dismissing a part of yourself upsets your own balance. Why do that? 
Tell me, how often do you invoke the Netjeru? Is there a set schedule or just when you feel the need? 
While I do follow a calender (as best as possible--funky work schedules make things difficult) where certain rituals are done at specific times of the year (like the rising of Sirius for instance), I try to refrain from invocations on a whim. If I do invoke the Netjeru, there is always a specific need for it and that need is usually important. However, if I can handle whatever the situation is on my own through material means or general ritual work, then I won't invoke Them at all. 
You mentioned reciting hymns. Where do these come from? Have they been passed down since ancient times? 
Many of the hymns have been passed down, via translations of researchers who in turn publish them or "automatic writing" while doing any kind of ritual work. A popular text is The Book of the Dead which was translated by E.A. Wallis Budge (and many others). Another is the Pyramid Texts (Translated by both R.O. Faulkner and James P. Allen), whose passages date as far back as the 5th Dynasty of the Old Kingdom period. 
The Leyden Papyrus is more recent in terms of chronology and was written during the Ptolemaic Period. Other texts have been also taken right from pyramid walls, museum exhibits (on placards near the artifacts in question), and from associated text books. I also write my own, and keep a small book with those hymns and invocations on me at all times. 
Do you have ritual in your home or at some other place?
Extensive ritual is done at home, but I've done "minor" work outside of my home as well.
Do you practice with others, or are you solitary? 
I am strictly solitary for the moment, primarily because I'm comfortable working on my own. It can be hard at times, I won't deny it, but one of the most important things I've learned from being solitary is to "take what you need and leave the rest."  Also to check and double-check the author's own references and bibliographies as best as possible. 
There are charlatans (as a good friend calls them) out there, and they have no qualms against taking advantage of general naivete. There are also authors who do get their facts muddled, which for the person starting out can lead to confusion or even misinformation if the material isn't verified against a more reputable source.
What was your upbringing like in terms of religion?
My upbringing wasn't as strict or imposing as most households were. My mother called herself Catholic, but she was hardly devoted. There was no being sent to church on Sunday, no being sat down in front of a Bible (which I did read of my own free will on several occasions), no Hail Mary's for being bad. 
She wasn't fond of Wicca or Witchcraft, but favored Santeria (she's from Panama) and other African spiritual paths including that of Kemet. In less words, she didn't care too much what I did in terms of religion, so long as I wasn't hurting anyone or myself. 
Do your friends and family know about your spiritual path? Do you have a spiritual community?
My mother has always known, I told her outright and she never tried to stop me. Some family members knew back then, but they might have forgotten by now (we don't talk for other reasons). My father didn't know, and still doesn't to this day. 
I have a very supportive fiancee who has a strong inclination/interest in Hermeticism. I have friends and associates who practice various paths, such as Palo, Santeria, Satanism or Voudoun and we all learn something new from each other. Basically, [it’s] our own little community without the monthly dues, by-laws (beyond respect for one another and one's individual practice) or cults of personality. 
I'm infinitely more comfortable with these people, than having to go through the process of "joining" a community to deal with people I may not like or want to be around. (I'm fickle like that.) Ultimately, you should do or join what feels right to you. 
For other people who might want to explore this spiritual tradition, do you have any recommendations for them (websites, temples, any other resources)? 
As for temples, the most popular ones are the House of Netjer as well as the Ausar Auset community (neither of which I'm a member of). Both have sites that can be found easily through Google. One author I found particularly helpful in the beginning was Rosemary Clark: her two books The Sacred Magic of Ancient Egypt and The Sacred Traditions of Ancient Egypt are excellent starting points. 
For those who have some familiarity with the Netjeru and want to explore deeper, I highly recommend the book The Complete Gods and Goddesses of Ancient Egypt by Richard H. Wilkinson. He breaks the entire book into sections that make researching the Netjeru easy with a wealth of images. 
Also excellent are the works of Dr. Muata Ashby, Ra Un Nefer Amen (if you can find them), Geraldine Pinch and Normandi Ellis. Begin with an open mind, and an open heart. Even if this may not be your path, there's still a great deal to be learned. 
I have actually heard of the Ausar Auset Society.  I checked out their website and noticed a pan-African emphasis. Do they limit membership to members of the Diaspora or can anybody join? I ask because this is a big topic in the pagan community. There are some traditions that restrict who can join based on ancestry or gender. What are your feelings on this topic?
So far as *I* am aware, they do not limit membership to members of the Diaspora. Judging from what I gleaned from their website and other references, they have chapters internationally and they seem to welcome all and educate all. One would have to contact them directly for the details, though.  
My thoughts on groups that limit based on ancestry and/or gender is that it's purely their decision to be ancestry-exclusive or gender-exclusive. This isn't to say I'm dismissive of groups that use gender/ancestry/ethnicity/race as a grounds to be bias; I'm not. But since those groups tend to be outnumbered by groups that are not bias, then I feel the saying "to each their own" applies here. 
Especially since history has proven that influences from outside can alter or even assimilate entire systems of traditions to the point where they scarcely exist anymore or they're "watered down" from the original. Traditions as old as Kemet (or even older) deserve more than mere "reconstruction." They deserve full on preservation. If any group chooses to limit membership in favor of preservation without bias, then I can respect that.
Do you see or personally experience an ancestral link between black people of the Diaspora and Kemet? 
Personally, I know my direct ancestry is more to the West and had been affected by the slave trading of the Spanish and Portuguese during the 1300s and 1400s. (My mother is from Panama, my father from the Caribbean (Dominica).) 
However, Kemet feels more..."at home" to me. That could be due to life-long familiarity with the history, or due to something more profound. At the end of the day, I just know that this is MY path to be on. 
As for the Diaspora, I'll say this and be blunt about it. Every African spiritual path, be it Voudoun, Palo, Santeria, Candomble, Igbo, Yoruba, Kemeticism. . . it all leads back to a SINGLE SOURCE. That source, as much as society wants to deny it/refute it/distort it/hide it/erase it, has proven to be Africa time and time again. As black people, we are all tied to this source. The link is there, and waiting for us and approaching generations to tap into it. Our ancestors WANT to be acknowledged, they want to hear from us, they want to teach us and they want their due respect. . . Can't get more direct than that.

Monday, June 20, 2011

the longest day

So, the summer solstice is upon us. Tomorrow, Tuesday June 21st, is the longest day of the year. The one with the most hours of sunlight. The biggest,  baddest, brightest, most blazingest day in the calendar. 
In my neck of the woods of upstate NY, the sky starts lightening around 4:30am. And the sun doesn't go down till hours and hours later, around 9pm.  
And then, beginning the very next day, the days will start to grow shorter. Ever so slowly at first -- there will be one less second of daylight on Wednesday than on Tuesday -- then building momentum up on through the fall equinox in September. 
After the equinox the pace of darkening slows down but it still gets darker, darker, darker, until the winter solstice in December. And so on and forever. Till that day billions of years from now when the sun burns out I guess.
It’s pretty interesting tracking the rising and falling amounts of sunlight through the year. Here's a nice site that can tell you such things in your region, just plug in your zipcode.
It’s a sweet time, the summer solstice. Nature’s popping everywhere -- at my house we have a huge field of wildflowers outside, and their delicious smell is constantly wafting through the windows. The rabbits and birds and squirrels and hedgehogs are all running around like crazy. Monarch butterflies flitting around the milkweed. The majestic maple -- our name for our favorite tree -- is most lush and green.
But it's bittersweet too, 'cause at the same time, the knowledge of shorter days, barely perceptible for the next few weeks -- is a reminder that the wheel is ever turning, and that the warmth and light will be coming to and end. It’s like a dance between summer at its most fertile and the gathering darkness, foreshadowing the winter. The cold, dead winter. Coming for ya.
People throughout the world will be celebrating the day. I’ll be marking the solstice by taking my morning meditation outside. Where I can concentrate on the sounds, the smells, the feel of the wind on my face, with my eyes closed. That night I’ll probably light some candles and say some words. Nothing fancy.
Do you celebrate the summer solstice?

Thursday, June 16, 2011

raffle: help send black witch to the black web awards

For more than a year now, Black Witch has written and maintained one of the few blogs online devoted exclusively to pagans of color. Her blog has been a true oasis in the dearth of responses you get when googling "black wicca pagan witch" or some such combo of keywords. 


It is also an entertaining and informative resource for newbies and veterans alike, and her column "Ask Black Witch" has helped many a newbie (myself included) with their questions about the Craft.


Now the community can give back to Black Witch by 1) voting for her blog (deadline is TODAY) in the Black Weblog Awards ('Best Faith Based Blog' category) and 2) making a donation by June 21 to help send her to the Black Weblog Awards ceremony held in Los Angeles on July 9. 


Black Witch has already raised nearly half of the $500 needed to attend the ceremony; let's all rally and help her raise the remaining $250. Every dollar counts no matter how small.


All donators will be automatically enrolled in a raffle, eligible to win such pagan-themed goodies as a Tree of Life pendant, incense, smudge sticks, tarot cards and more. Please visit the Black Witch site for details. 


Why is this so important? This will be a chance, in the words of Black Witch:


"to represent the Black Pagan community on a global scale. The funds cover airfare and stay.


It is already a great opportunity to be a part of the Black Weblog Awards but what would be better is to actually be there and help put a face on the Black Pagan Faith, a faith that is often ignored in favor of the Abrahamic religions, Christianity in particular. 


The Faith Category in the Black Weblog Awards is usually dominated by Christian blogs and occasionally Islam or even Atheist but never anything besides that. Already it is noteworthy that a Black Pagan blog has made it as a finalist but I think it would be even better physically to be in L. A. to accept the award. The Black Weblog Awards is one of the biggest Black blogger competitions worldwide so it would definitely be a recognized act, especially with the first live ceremony they will have this year.


If you are a Black Pagan and always wanted to see your own succeed, now is your chance to help through giving. If you just want to see a different faith accepting the award, now is your chance through giving (and voting). Success don't come 100% by itself, sometimes help is needed and now I need your help, readers, in getting me to L.A. to represent the column and Black Paganism as a whole."


So time's a runnin' out! Please head over to the Black Witch blog for all the fabulous details (especially about those raffle prizes).

Tuesday, June 7, 2011

a future black crone

One of the things I love about modern paganism is the concept of the maiden, mother and crone. When I first heard the word “crone” it made me think of a bitter, ugly woman. Not a word I would ever use to describe my future, older self. I just knew there was a better term to express what I would one day surely be, namely, an old black woman.

But eventually, as I got hip to the whole meaning of the triple goddess, I started to embrace the term crone. Shorthand version, the archetype of the crone is an old woman, embodying the virtues of wisdom and counsel, night, death, reincarnation, among other things. In other words, life’s deepest mysteries.
At 46 and still capable of birthing a child, I’m not quite a crone, but I am getting close. And I’m looking forward to it.
Modern American culture can be cruel to people as they get older. We are so focused on physical youthfulness, and the overriding message about aging we get is that it a) sucks and b) should be avoided at all costs. Hence the multi-billion dollar “anti-aging” industry. Which is really anti-life.
At the core of this attitude is the fear of death, with old age seen as nothing more than a long, painful decline. This perspective is a spiritual dead end.
We all know the manifestations of this dread of old age, and it hits us at all ages: from young folks expending precious mental energy dreading their 30th birthdays, to middle-aged people and those even younger getting botox and plastic surgery, to the ageism that makes employers not want to hire people over 50, to the phenomenon often seen in nursing homes where, in a late-stage re-enactment of high school social dynamics, the most frail residents are often shunned. No matter one’s age, ageism harms the soul and the psyche.

If one of the major themes in paganism is to live in harmony with the rhythms of nature, I can’t think of anything more in opposition to that ethos than the absolute fear, revulsion and denial of aging that we are taught in this society. 

Nature is a continuous cycle of birth, life and death. From the beginning till the end of time. And being pagan is all about rolling with these changes and (hopefully) accepting and finding the beauty in each of life’s seasons. 
But instead of doing that, we worship youth to the exclusion of all the other stages. This is true for both genders but it hits women especially hard, since a woman’s worth is often measured by how closely she matches the physical ideal of youthful beauty.
As we age, and our looks grow further away from that standard, our self-esteem can take a hit if we’ve bought into the dominant narrative that worth is defined by the outward self. Even if we don’t subscribe to that narrative, society will let us know its stance and treat us accordingly. The signs are not subtle, to name just a few:
You become invisible. You virtually disappear from the pop culture. Many women get dumped by their partners for a younger model. If single and looking for a partner, an older woman often finds that men her age don’t want to date her (I have friends going through this right now).


And everywhere you look, there is advertising telling you that what's happening to your body and face is ugly. It can be a difficult transition. Many women start to believe the negative messages.
So here’s my “black pagan” spin on this phenomenon: I think that black women have a distinct advantage when it comes to dealing with this particular aspect of growing older as a woman in this society. 
We have, after all, a lifetime of experience receiving the societal message that we do not matter. That we are not beautiful, that we are not worthy. And by the time we reach crone's age, we have had a lifetime to learn how to deal with it. 
Except for the minority of us who possess physical characteristics that come close to the “ideal” (white skin, thin, straight hair, blue eyes etc.) we learn from an early age that our kinky hair, ample rears, broad noses, thick lips and dark skin are largely unappreciated. Society’s prevailing beauty standard does not include us.
We are seen, generally speaking, as occupying the bottom of the totem pole when it comes to notions of feminine beauty. Black women heralded as the most beautiful inevitably display the least amount of African-ness (Beyonce, Halle Berry. Not to knock them, just making a point).
Who among us, as little girls, never draped a towel over our heads and looked into the bathroom mirror, imagining what we’d look like with straight, long hair. Who at some point in our personal history didn’t wish our hair was straighter, that our skin was not so dark, and nose maybe not so broad? Etc.
There are two responses to such a situation: you can go through life with an inferiority complex, wishing that you looked more like the beauty ideal (and spend lots of time and effort trying to approximate it), or you can learn at some point to embrace yourself. 

And know that you are beautiful even in the face of a society that tells you differently. Most of our collective responses fall somewhere on or between these two polarities, depending on where we're at in life.
That being the case, with a certain amount of inner strength, support and plain luck, we can learn to say “fuck you” to the negative messages about ourselves. We can learn to appreciate our hair, skin, lips, etc. 
We can also focus on attributes other than the mere physical. In doing so, we gain a lifetime of practice in defining ourselves on our own terms. This builds strong character in the long run. And it’s a useful skill to have, as one grows older in a culture that hates old people.
So having never fit in so well with the dominant beauty standard to begin with, it’s less of a big deal when we pass our “sell-by” date (as I’ve heard middle age for women described). We’re just living our lives as always.
The idea of the seasons of a woman’s life mirroring the seasons of nature, and the divine, is very healing. Instead of reviling old age, instead of seeing ourselves as increasingly ugly and weak and useless to wider society, we can learn to celebrate each new phase of life. It is the natural order of things. Everything changes, and we can see the beauty in all phases, even as we face our fears head on.
We can look at the creases on our faces and see in them the splendor of a stark, bare tree, full of lines and a lifetime of experience. We can increase our powers, however we may define them. Even as each stage draw us closer to death.
We can use this time to let go of the superficial, to explore new interests, dive further into older ones, change course, go within, form new and different relationships, deepen old ones, weed out the unimportant, mentor the young. 

I personally plan on getting rid of most of my crap and writing weird music. :-)
I am grateful for the older women in my life and in the public eye -- especially the black women -- who defy the stereotypes of old age and who embody those positive aspects of the crone. I thank the gods for life and love, and for this strange and beautiful journey of birth through death, and back again.