The Sacredness of Starting Again

When I was new to all this, it was hard not to be disappointed at how small and new the modern (neo-)pagan movement is. I’ve heard neopagan polytheism referred to as a “nano-minority” of a religious grouping, which sums it up well — as a movement, we’re so tiny that most of the mainstream societies in our various home countries likely don’t know we even exist. We’re also incredibly new. Depending on how one defines the beginning of the modern neopagan movement (19th century druidry? mid 20th century Wicca?), it’s certainly new in comparison to the majority religions in our societies. (Indeed, many of the trees in my nearby swathe of old-growth forest are older than ADF, which is a well-established druidic group!)

While we have some ancient texts to refer back to, there are no handy guidebooks that explain in exact detail of how the average person in our ancient society of choice went about their religious routine and thereby how we should today, and that was frustrating to me. If I had wanted to be a Catholic theologian or priest, there would have been plenty of orders with associated seminaries, lesson plans, rituals, and institutions that have been in place for centuries to guide me through that process. But as present-day pagan-polytheist practitioners, we’re in comparatively uncharted waters, learning to swim as we go. There are books and organizations out there, but much of them are quite nascent themselves and in a constant state of experimentation, evolution, and change.

This newness frustrated me for a long time, but recently I’ve had something of a change of heart.
 

Linear and Cyclical, Djet and Neheh

I’ve been thinking more about how what we modern-day pagans are doing is such an immensely powerful, sacred activity. All of us–revivalists, (post-)reconstructionists, eclectics, syncretists, and all the other infinite manner of styles and methods and theologies–are engaging in an act of re-creation, of renewal. We’re involved in neheh-time.

Summarized broadly, the Ancient Egyptians had two concepts of time: djet and neheh. Djet aligns more closely with our concept of linear time, but neheh is cyclical, seasonal, recurring. Neheh is…

 “…the time of unending ever-again, of ceaseless renewal and eternal return. The dead, too, strove for ceaseless renewal in the ever-again of neheh-time. They wished to ‘go forth and enter, in the company of the sun god’ and to indulge themselves daily in all sorts of transformations in the light of the sun. This desire to transform belonged entirely to the neheh-time of renewal; the Egyptian word kheper, ‘to become, to transform,’ written with the hieroglyph depicting a scarab, the symbol of this ceaseless power of regeneration, designates existence in the framework of neheh, of the “ever-again.”

Assmann, J. (2005). Death and Salvation in Ancient Egypt. Ithaca: Cornell University Press. Kindle edition. (Bolded emphasis mine.)

Neheh can also be described as the “infinity of discontinuity,” [2] and I find the term discontinuity to be wonderfully applicable to our revival of ancient practices. Our traditions may be discontinuous as opposed to unbroken lineages, but that does not diminish their value. In fact, this re-creation is an expected part of the Ancient Egyptian cosmology.

Creation was not a one-time act that occurred once in a distant past and expanded forever outwards. Instead, “creation was thought of as happening both in the past and the present,” and with each sunrise, the world is re-created: “tomorrow was not just another day, but another world.” [3] So long as the sun continues to rise, the world will be created anew, and we have the chance to start again.

The sun and natural forces like seasons are associated with neheh due to their repeated journeys of constant repeating cycles, but humanity is also involved in this sense of cyclical time. [4] We as individuals and societies go through cycles too.

A photo of the sun approaching sunset just above a treeline surrounding a lake.
Sunset, not sunrise, but close enough. Taken at my nearby lake.

Traditions Reborn and Transformed, Again and Again

Recently I’ve been reading a copy of the Book of Going Forth by Day (i.e. “the Book of the Dead”) cover-to-cover, rather than just excerpts here and there. This 25-foot-long papyrus is the means by which a deceased individual (a man named Sobekmose, in the one I’m reading) becomes an akh, an “effective spirit” in the afterlife. It has really struck me how frequently Sobekmose must reassert his rebirth into the afterlife over and over again. It’s not just one long, linear story of his transfiguration into an immortal ancestor — instead, there is spell after spell detailing all the ways he is reborn, all the challenges he overcomes again and again. He stands before the scales and asserts his innocence repeatedly, although a little differently every time. The cycles repeat, but they are not carbon copies. Each iteration of the process is a little different, just like each of our journeys around the sun.

It’s also worth pointing out that once he becomes a fully-transfigured akh, he is not the exact same person as he was prior to his death. He is now a shapeshifter, an Osiris, a phoenix. He grows wings or scales, dons the crown of kingship, and pilots the boat of Ra as the need arises. He is no longer simply a temple goldsmith, as he was before death — now he’s someone else while still being himself, over and over again for eternity, and that is something he celebrates.

That theme repeats itself frequently in Ancient Egyptian thought. The phrase “may I renew my youth like the moon” appears on funerary statues [5], and the moon, like the sun, goes through cycles. The face of the moon is not unchanging — it waxes, wanes, and disappears, only to return again. Even an eclipse cannot halt the moon’s cycle for long. Ancient Egyptian beliefs and practices themselves also went through plenty of transfiguration throughout their centuries-long history. Rituals and funerary rites were heavily inspired by previous versions, but rarely exactly copy-pasted. “Fully a third of the Coffin Text spells are descended from the [earlier] Pyramid Texts, reused verbatim or in partially revised form,” [6] and from there, Coffin Text spells were then added into Books of the Dead. But no two Books of the Dead were the same — different chapters were spliced in, remixed, removed, or completely newly written.  The old transfiguration spells were themselves transfigured, but the end result is the same: the deceased becomes an Osiris himself.

Likewise, our modern-day pagan practices have been transfigured — the lived practices had “died” in many ways, and have now been transformed into something different–but still effective–in the present day. Every time we perform a ritual or recite a prayer, we are engaging in this act of cyclical transfiguration. It’s different each time (language, tools, setting, participants can all change) and yet remain the same sort of thing as the last time we did it a few days ago, and the last time temple priests did it a few thousand years ago. Khepri in the morning becomes Ra at noon and Atum in the evening, and the cycle begins again. Currently, as kemetic polytheists, I’d say we are Khepri. We are becoming.

Hopefully our polytheistic movements continue to grow, but even if they do fizzle out in the coming decades or centuries, I am confident they will “go forth by day” again.
 

The last photo I took on my last flight to California before the pandemic shutdowns here in the US. That cycle has ended; I will likely not travel as frequently again in my career. But I look forward to traveling again soon.

Zep Tepi: We Can Always Start Again

This concept of neheh time can also alleviate some of the guilt that we can face if we take a break (intentional or otherwise) in our spiritual practices. The sun is still rising and setting, the river’s tide is still ebbing and flowing; we can hop back onto that merry-go-round any time and rejoin the cyclical nature of things. Unfortunately I speak from experience when I say that there’s always going to be something that derails our practice for a time. Chaos, even when relegated to the sidelines by the forces of ma’at, is an inevitable part of life. This, too, was part of the Ancient Egyptian worldview: “in this everlasting cosmic and existential process one might be faced with several crises [and] the solution to overcome any of them is the return to the origins.” [7] Fall off the wagon? Just start over and rekindle that initial spark of zep tepi, the “First Time,” and the slate will have been wiped clean. When I return to shrine after a fallow period and my ritual practice begins again, that spark of zep tepi feels like a joyous welcome back. To the Ancient Egyptians, “the relationship between gods and people then was one that would continue forever,” [8] no matter how long the communication was interrupted.

This has broader applications outside of our ritual practices too; the magic of zep tepi can apply to any process that needs to be restarted. Need to restart an exercise or water-drinking or book-reading practice? Zepi tepi. Begin again. Really, the sky is the limit here. After all, the ways the “first” zep tepi occurred are numerous, ranging from “the act of masturbation, spitting, sneezing, thinking, or speaking,” and occurring either “upon a mound, in a rising lotus, or from an egg,” all depending on which creation myth you reference. [9] The beginning of creation happened in many times and in many ways, so your journey can start and restart ad infinitum as well.

An example: last year I took a few weeks off running due to a minor injury (a result of wearing old shoes — please don’t let your shoes get to over 1,000 km like I did!), and dread crept in as I prepped for my first post-injury run. I knew it would be so hard to get back at it. Inertia felt so heavy. But I tried to focus on zep tepi, treating this as beginning my training cycle over again, simultaneously my first run and one of many, and the re-framing did help. I was still a little sore afterwards, but at least I began the cycle again (hopefully smarter this time), and the forward momentum has continued.  

On that note, I don’t mean to imply that forward movement and continuity are meaningless — djet, the more linear concept of time, emphasizes the “continuation of what was completed” as opposed to recurring cycles [10] , and is equally important. But neheh I find more applicable in our scenario of a new polytheistic movement, since djet is tied more closely to our concepts of the past and the dead kings who reside there. Neheh focuses on potential time, simultaneously the beginning and the future. [2] This is where we are now in our ritual practices.

When we pour our libations at the altar, we are simultaneously doing so for the first time and for the umpteenth time, an infinity of discontinuity.

And isn’t it beautiful to know that one day we’ll look back and smile because we were there at the beginning of all this?

References

[1] Assmann, J. (2005). Death and Salvation in Ancient Egypt. Ithaca: Cornell University Press. Kindle edition.

[2] Hsu, Sh.-W. (2017). “The Pharaoh lives forever”: Royal eternal life in Ancient Egyptian royal inscriptions. Orientalia 86 (2), 274-285.

[3] Pinch, G. (2004). Egyptian Mythology: A Very Short Introduction. New York: Oxford University Press, Inc. Kindle Edition.

[4] Hartwig, M. K. (2015). Chapter 3: Style. In M.K. Hartiwg (Ed.), A Companion to Ancient Egyptian Art. Hoboken, NJ: John Wiley & Sons, Ltd.

[5] Teeter, E. (2011). Religion and Ritual in Ancient Egypt. New York, NY: Cambridge University Press. Kindle Edition.

[6] Dorman, P. F. (2017). The origins and early development of the Book of the Dead. In F. Scalf (Ed.), Book of the Dead: Becoming God in Ancient Egypt (29-41). Chicago, IL: Oriental Institute of the University of Chicago.

[7] Pires, G. B. (2019). Before Time, after Time: Existential time markers in Ancient Egypt – beginning, end and restart. A preliminary approach (with a special focus on the Heliopolitan conception). RES Antiquitatis 1, 143-157.

[8] Lesko, B.S. (2010). Divine interest in humans in Ancient Egypt. In Z. Hawass & J. H. Wegner (Eds.), Millions of Jubilees: Studies in Honor of David P. Silverman (305-313). Cairo, Egypt: Conseil Suprême des Antiquités de l’Égypte.

[9] Bailleul-LeSuer, R. (Ed.) (2012). Between Heaven and Earth: Birds in Ancient Egypt. Chicago, IL: Oriental Institute Museum Publications.

[10] Khalil, I. (2014). “I Was Not Built Up in the Womb, I Was Not Knit Together in the Egg, I Was Not Conceived”: The Christian Doctrine of the Eternal Generation of the Son in Its Egyptian Context. Journal of the Canadian Society for Coptic Studies 6, 9-24.

2 thoughts on “The Sacredness of Starting Again

  1. I so relate to your ‘nano-minority’ (great word!) thoughts and struggles as one of very few Brythonic polytheists in Britain and further afield and do like the concept of beginning ‘ever again’.

    Like

  2. While not a Kemetic myself, I always appreciate your posts and learning about the philosophy of Ancient Kemet. I really resonate with these two types of reckoning time and the ability to constantly renew oneself. I’d agree that as neo-pagans or otherwise part of pagan revival, we’re in a unique place and there’s a lot of good and power there.

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