Per Bastemhet

Monolatry as defined for Kemetic Orthodox practice by the Nisut of KO

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For those who have been following the posts on this blog, you may have noticed that I have more than one post on how the netjeru were conceived by the Kemetic people, and how that works out for us modern practitioners today.  My view on this has evolved, starting with the essay I wrote on the Conceptions of God.  Then I looked into ante-rational henotheism in my post of the same name.  My last post was my attempt to try and understand monolatry and how it differs from henotheism, as well as how this played out in antiquity.  However it seemed that rational henotheism and monolatry seemed to be identical, and try as I might, I could not find anything on the internet to help with further understanding.  So, I asked Rev. Siuda on the HoN boards why she described the theology as monolatry and why as such instead of as henotheism.  Here is what she had to say:

It is my understanding that the terms differ generally not in theory (both are forms of polytheism, both acknowledge many gods despite the "mono-" at the beginning of monolatry that so many seem to see and run screaming from), but in the expression of the individual religious practice.

Ancient Greek religion is a good example of henotheism. There is a company of gods, the Olympians, who have a leader, Zeus. This god is *always* the head/leader of the pantheon, and while all of the gods exist, they (more or less) are considered to defer to the head/leader god. The gods tend to be approached in groups, whether small ones or all at a time, in prayer and worship, far more often than they are approached singly. At no time is any one deity considered to be able to merge functions or identities with any other of the deities. They are strictly separate beings, just like if you have a classroom containing 30 children: all 30 of the children are always different children, even if you can describe the entire group as a "class" – the class still contains 30 distinct individuals.

Kemetic religion is very much like Greek religion, except in some significant differences in practice:
– We can describe a number of gods as the head/leader god, depending on context, locality, and time period, and sometimes these gods themselves can merge to become other gods (e.g., Amun-Ra). At least one set of mythologies describes one of these "head" gods as being the source of all the other gods (e.g., "Tem Who Made Himself Millions."

I had read in separate readings that this is true- that the ancient Kemetics approached their deity as the Gread God, the Head God, even if in mythology that netjer does not have that kind of mythology to support it.  i.e. I could be praying to Bast, and consider her the greatest of all netjeru, the all powerful one, and in antiquity they did the same thing.  However once I finished worshipping her and addressed another netjeru, they too would take on this “Great God” status.  This I think would happen not only in temples but even in personal practice by laymen, seeing as how families each had their own deities that may not have matched up with those of their nome.

– Only in certain contexts do our gods "defer" to each other – most of the time, each is considered to have the characteristics of a head/leader god, and is approached in that way. Even in liturgical reference, what will change in the liturgy from temple to temple is not the content of the rites but the names – we worship the same "god" over and over and over, and just change the names at different locations, whereas in henotheism each unique deity has unique rites more often than universal rites with the names changed out.

– While we do occasionally refer to all the Kemetic deities (and I admit that I do it fairly often in our modern Kemetic Orthodox contexts), ANCIENT contexts rarely do so. About the only ways that gods are referenced in groups during liturgy are by familial relation (i.e., when praying to one god you might reference Their siblings, parents, or children, but you’re still praying to that one god). In Saqu, we have never once had more than one deity appear at the same time, despite the fact that we could invoke them all at one time, and in fact have attempted to do so on at least one occasion. There are no records of any ancient oracles or ceremonies that manifested simultaneous expressions of the deity/deities. We can get Them consecutively, one after another, but when They come, They come one at a time, and we acknowledge Them one at a time. This is the literal definition of monolatry – a polytheism that worships deities one at a time, and for the duration of that worship, only concerns itself with that deity, but does not deny the existence of any others.

I found this part to be very interesting.  Ancient practice (at some points in history) tells us that though we worship the netjeru separately, they collectively represent the combined power and creation of one creator netjer (I go into this more in the Conceptions of netjer post).  However I and many other people have only experienced the netjeru as singular, individual beings, even though we understand that sometimes through syncretism they become more than that.  I have also noticed that while many intellectually agree with the idea that all netjeru together express an abstract Netjerness, they only ever experience them as individuals, as a hard polytheism would.

– Ancient syncretisms, aspecting, and liturgies that compare and combine the deities do so in a way that "hard polytheisms" do not, and that I’ve also never observed in religions that call themselves henotheisms. Our gods not only merge and unmerge with each other, sometimes They are discussed and approached in a singular über-deity form. However, at no time does Netjer in the abstract become a monotheist god – we always know and realize that the One is also Many at the same time.

– To use my school analogy, consider the teacher of my theoretical class. To the students, she is Mrs. Jones. To her husband, she is Mary Jones. To her mother, she is "my little girl." She can be addressed by many names depending on the context. She is not the only teacher in the universe, but she can also be understood to be a representative of Teacher in an abstract sense if someone needed to consider Teacher-as-symbol. The class might have substitute teachers, or graduate to another level and have a completely new teacher, but Mrs. Jones will always be a singular part of that larger structure of teaching. (You could also think about all the other roles and functions of the students, and still get the same idea – monolatry is defined just as much by what it looks at singularly as what it looks at in pluralities – it recognizes there are many things but addresses them one at a time).

I think at this point I am willing to say that I agree and think it was a monolatry, for the reasons that Rev. Siuda laid out that matched with what I had studied before.  I think they key to understanding was the fact that the Great God is interchangeable, and the ritual texts reflect this.  This interchangeability is what makes the theological understanding of the netjeru so fluid; although we experience netjeru as individual, we can understand that their interconnectedness and relationship as a whole leads us to the power of Netjer as abstract- who can also be interchangeable.  When I asked Rev. Siuda about her conception of this abstract Netjer, and whether it can be conceived as one of the netjeru (for example Amun, Tem, etc.; any of the creator deities), as an unnamed singular netjer, or as the totality of the collective “netjer-ness”/divine power of all the netjeru combined (something like Jan Assmann’s cosmotheism*), she answered:

I personally think of both Assmann’s cosmotheist approach and Tem as "Netjer," since Tem’s name means "The Complete One" and we have mythological/religious reference to He-She being Millions.** I recognize that not everyone here has the same belief, and I think ultimately since it’s monolatry that doesn’t matter – any god could potentially be the One that the Many manifest through/from; both are simultaneous and do not negate each other. In actual practice, being monolatrist, I don’t approach that abstract all that often; I tend to approach the Deities for that purpose, as They come to me or as I feel a need to go to Them.
**I’ve presented papers about this, as noted earlier in this thread, and I also was the student of Dr. Robert Ritner, who was himself one of Assmann’s proteges; we all work in that field.

Again, that interchangeability becomes key, and is also one of the unique features of Kemetic religion that sets it apart from the rest.

In the next post I’ll address some confusion as to monolatry and whether it’s a “masked monotheism” in the next post.


*You can read about cosmotheism here.

Written by Bastemhet

July 29, 2011 at 7:03 pm

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