This post was prepared for both the Kemetic Round Table and the Pagan Blog Project on Friday, October 3, 2014. This month at KRT, we’re wrestling with the following question:
Terminology and language: How necessary is it? Is there a right or wrong way to use terminology and language in your practice?
For some people, having a precise terminology for their faith isn’t always important. Many people simply refer to Divinity in general as “God” and they don’t think about how this term might mean completely different things to different people. In some cases, it’s a matter of being raised to identify with a certain set of labels and continuing to do so simply because “That’s what we’ve always done.” How many Episcopalians, Lutherans or Methodists actually understand the differences between their denominations? How many people know the difference between a Baptist and an Anabaptist? In other cases, people actually choose terms and labels for themselves without thinking of how many different definitions there can be for said terms. For instance, what about all the self-described witches out there who insist that witches must always be Pagans, liberals, pacifists, environmentalists and Goddess worshipers? There have been (and continue to be) many different concepts of witchcraft that don’t fit these parameters at all.
Long ago, I didn’t think about these things very much; I simply used whatever terms I liked. But when I called myself “religious,” I had to clarify that I didn’t mean “Christian.” When I said I was “Pagan,” I had to explain that I wasn’t Wiccan. When I said I was a “polytheist,” I had to mention that I wasn’t a reconstructionist. When I said I believed in “magic,” I had to add that I didn’t take the Harry Potter books literally. When I said that I sometimes engaged in “left-handed” ritual practices, I had to assure people that I wasn’t practicing maleficia. When I said I was a “Sethian,” I had to clarify that I wasn’t a Gnostic Jew or Christian. When I said I was a “Typhonian,” I had to explain that I wasn’t a Thelemite or a follower of Kenneth Grant. This even extended to how I identified my God, for when I said I walked with “Seth,” I had to mention that I wasn’t walking with the Gnostic or New Age Seths. When I said I prayed to “Sutekh,” I had to add that I wasn’t praying to the Doctor Who character. When I said I worshiped “Set,” I had to explain that I wasn’t worshiping Satan (or a fictional character from Robert E. Howard’s Conan stories).
It eventually became clear to me and my brothers in LV-426 that no terminology is perfect, and that while we can use any terms we please within the privacy of our own circle, we must be more precise when sharing our ideas with the public. This means using two different terminologies: (1) an esoteric one that’s used just between us and (2) an exoteric one that we use around other people. For example, we commonly refer to Seth-Typhon and other Egyptian Gods by Their Hellenized names in public (e.g., Osiris instead of Wesir). This is because Their Hellenized names are usually more recognizable to most people today (with a few exceptions, like Ra). If I say “Aset,” only Kemetics and Egyptologists will really know who I’m talking about; but if I say “Isis”, fewer people will be confused. I tend to restrict my use of the original Egyptian names for these Deities to my private interactions with Them. When I pray to Seth, for instance, I usually address Him as “Sutekh.” For me, it’s sort of like referring to my wife by her birth name when I’m talking about her with other people, then calling her “Honey” when I speak with her one-on-one.
I also prefer to use words like ba (“soul”), Duat (“Otherworld”) and Netjeru (“Gods”) in my prayers and rituals, but most people aren’t familiar with these terms. If I used them regularly, I’d have to explain what they mean over and over again to almost everyone I met. While I think it’s sad that we Americans so often want large quantities of information to be handed to us in “sound bytes,” it already takes me a while to explain who and what Seth-Typhon is whenever the question arises. Most people get confused or become impatient if I throw a bunch of foreign words at them on top of all that. It’s one thing if they’re genuinely interested in how the Remet-en-Kemet (i.e., the ancient Egyptians) actually described things in their own language; but most people I’ve met just want “the skinny,” and it’s much easier for me to make myself understood when I speak as much “plain English” as possible. (Sometimes this isn’t possible, as with such hard-to-translate concepts as Ma’at and isfet. But it’s at least accurate enough to describe the Netjeru as “Gods.”)