The Reverend Tamara Siuda, Nisut of Orthodox Kemeticism (whom I once, a very long time ago, used to chat with on AOL pagan boards), has an interesting piece on Polytheist.com. She talks about, in the days before she formed Kemetic Orthodoxy, working with a solitary reconstructionist, and how much he worried about getting the form exactly right, so much so that when he couldn't perfectly replicate a conical loaf of bread, he painted a styroform form from the craft store to look like one instead. What he forgot is that the Egyptians practiced reciprocal offerings, and were supposed to eat the offered foods themselves after the ritual. Oops. Can't eat styrofoam.
I tell this story as a funny anecdote, but it illustrates something very important at the heart of Kemetic “reconstructionism,” or any reconstructionism or revival or whatever you want to label a modern polytheism based on an ancient one. There’s an important difference between what an ancient polytheism does — or how one acts in that religion — and why one acts in that way. Is the importance of the offering bread that it is shaped or colored a certain way, or offered on a certain kind of plate, or made with a certain kind or number of ingredients? Or is it important because it’s bread? Or is it simply that the gods are given a food item? The Shinto poet Matsuo Basho, who also lived during a period of thoughtful, intense polytheist reconstructionism, wrote: “Do not seek to follow in the footsteps of the men of old. Seek what they sought.” When I came to my work with Kemetic Orthodoxy, despite that Basho never worshipped the same gods that I do, I took his advice to heart, and it has remained with me since. It is just as important to know the how of one’s polytheism, as it is to know the why. Rituals are important to us as polytheists, often to the exclusion of creed or belief, whether we are the polytheists of today or five thousand years ago. Going through the motions of a ritual with neither a purpose nor an understanding of the meanings of those motions is pointless. Especially for post-Enlightenment polytheists, for whom the cult of Reason has been given its own, large altar by the secular world we also live within, the idea of doing rituals just to make them look like someone else’s rituals is absurd. If we do not believe in commandment or creed, why should we then demand such requirements of the way our polytheistic practices are done? We must be wary not to replace the gospels of the “book religions” with new gospels by archaeologists, ethnographers, ancient writers, or even the paintings of bread in a tomb. If we are to succeed at living religion, we must live it, not merely copy it from a model.
And there is one of the issues I have with many modern reconstructionists. They want to go with the form over the spirit, while claiming that only the exact form can capture the spirit -- ignoring such inconvenient facts as: they haven't actually recreated the ancient ritual, the ritual and its meaning changed over time and differed from place to place, and that they're selecting details that they like (the most common form of bread offering wasn't conical at all, but an unlevened loaf like a pita or levash) and insisting that those are Right rather than something they like.
And I just... I don't understand the thinking. What good does it do to walk through steps we don't understand and have only vague descriptions of to begin with? How does that serve the gods, unless they have asked for it to be done (in which case, hopefully they'll explain at least a little of it)? How does that help us mortals to do it?
Some parts of the practice of a religion serve needs of the gods, without whom there would not be religion. Some parts serve the needs of the people, without whom there would be no one to fulfil the needs of the gods, and who need things from the gods and from religion. Most parts do both, to one extent or another.