“Tradition is not the worship of ashes, but the preservation of fire.” -Gustav Mahler
I have what some would term an “issue with authority”; because of that, my relationship with Heru is uniquely valuable in that as many things as we have in common, we also differ on several very important things. He challenges my ideas without violating my boundaries, and even when he doesn’t change my mind about something, my ideas become better developed because of these challenges. He introduces different ways of thinking about things I naturally shy away from, like tradition or authority, and helps me to more efficiently and peacefully navigate the deeply hierarchical world I live in. Because of my unique position “between” Heru and his rival Set -a shared devotee and in many cases a middle ground, the “human element”, between divine chaos and order- I also get to see how he is uniquely challenged by his relationship with Set (and vice versa, but I digress). And of course, I get to see how he has come to terms -or attempted to come to terms- with the new, strange world in which he lives. This post is my attempt to put into words the struggles he goes through, as I’ve seen and interpreted them; obviously this is mostly UPG, though I like to think a lot of it is heavily influenced by historical themes.
Here’s an obvious truth modern-day kemetics, particularly reconstructionist kemetics, often shy around talking about: we can never fully reconstruct Ancient Egypt and its religion. We will never know half as much about it as we know about Hellenic polytheism, we will probably never know how regular people (rather than the priests who wrote everything we have to go off of now) worshipped the NTRW. So much of the context and details of this religion have been lost to the sands of time; a once-proud and groundbreaking empire has long since fallen, and we are only doing the best we can to preserve and honor what little we have left. For those of us born in this time, this isn’t something to mourn too much; we have our own culture and society to lean on, and we don’t much envy people who lived in a patriarchal, xenophobic, slave-owning, imperialistic nation where the past was worshipped, law was seen as the human duty for the divine order with infringes on said order punished accordingly harshly, and historical fact was less important than painting the pharaoh in a positive light. But for a god who was the proverbial poster child of the nation believed to be not only the greatest, but the only nation worth talking about (why else would the ancients allow Set, the bitter rival of their beloved king, the title of “Lord of Foreigners” unless they believed that one Egyptian was always better than nameless uncountable people from anywhere else on the planet?); for the god who was held up as the prototype of not only kingship, but all righteous young Egyptian men until they died and became Osiris; for the god who was accustomed to being seen as something between Jesus, Luke Skywalker, and Superman. . .For Heru-Sa-Aset, the fall of Egypt wasn’t just a tragedy, or the loss of his power and status in this realm (although that certainly must have stung as well). It was the death of everything he had and everything he was. It was the loss of the only thing, in his mind, that made him unique and worthy among the netjeru. After all, what’s a king without his kingdom?
Heru as I know him is maybe a bit too likely to stick with tradition and resent change, maybe a bit too unnerved by, or patronizing towards, things that are defiant and strange, liking the phrase “because I said so” a little too much for my taste- but he is no cruel tyrant. He loved Egypt because he loves people. He loved to be the one humanity turned to for help, the one entrusted with the responsibility of keeping the nation and by proxy the universe running smoothly. He isn’t just the Egyptian paragon of superficial desirable traits, he’s exactly what I have in mind when I picture a Lawful Good heroic figure in a position of leadership. He’s the symbol of the part of civilization that protects the weak where nature would allow it to be eaten by the strong. He’s the god who was not born fully formed and ready to rule, but had to grow through childhood and adolescence, who knew the fear of being hunted by someone bigger and stronger than you, who made sacrifices and suffered defeat before he was allowed to claim the throne. In that way, he is the most human of the pantheon -the most relatable to a young person who also had to grow up too quickly. He’s a natural leader, kind, loyal, just, and as willing to be merciful to enemies as he is to be harsh with friends when need be. He’s able to empathize and heal, to approach problems assuming they can be fixed peacefully rather than immediately trying to force things to go his way. He’s so much of what I wish I was, what I aspire to be.
But for some reason, he thinks these things don’t matter next to the fact his crown is now a relic of the past. He thinks the title of king is his single defining, valuable trait -that since other NTRW may be stronger, or more universally kinder, or equally capable of protecting the vulnerable and healing the sick, that he is irrelevant now. That he can only remain himself through clinging to the old order with all his strength, pointedly ignoring Set’s popularity and growing influence in the sphere of modern-day kemetic polytheists and our communities. He is so wounded by losing all he once had that it keeps him from seeing what he has, or could have, today.
I love this god more than I ever thought I could, and I understand why these things are so difficult for him, but I still find it all incredibly frustrating. A crown is, after all, just a fancy hat that symbolizes the ability to command armies that enforce your will. It says nothing about the character of the mind and heart beneath it. Egypt was the first great civilization, but it wasn’t perfect, so why pretend that it was? Why worship the ashes when he could help us build a better civilization today where we could continue to uphold ma’at, continue to keep the flame alive in a new form -and besides we have cool shit that can make fire different colors these days, new campfire songs and stories to tell, new kinds of alcohol, roller coasters and rock bands and movies and comic books. New ways to share our religion over the internet so that average people can understand and honor the gods in perhaps a deeper and more informed way than we once could. And even in this strange new world, we still need kind leaders like him.
A king without a kingdom is no less than he once was. It’s only his methods that have to change, not his character or his good heart.
I don’t know if I have the capacity to change anything about the Heru that I know and love. I don’t know if it’s possible for him to change and adapt to a world where he isn’t the king, but “just” a deity people in need turn to for encouragement and support, a friend to those who need it, a valuable teacher of patience and discipline to rowdy troublemakers like yours truly. But I still really, really hope so. We need him, especially in these chaotic times where it seems nothing means anything and those in power are no longer even pretending to serve all of their people equally. He deserves to help us, just as he always has. He deserves to be happy, now as in antiquity.