A Remix Remixed

Apart from these theological considerations, Cleopatra’s setting and audience do not match what we know of Egyptian practice. I had not been alone in being annoyed at her deviance from the established norms of the priesthood in the world, so I guess I was not surprised to find she was also at deviance from established Egyptian practice. Initially I felt justified in my appraisal of her by this deviance. But the more I thought about it the more I came to see her actions as not a failure to recreate historical practice, but rather as a new creation in itself. Not a creation to match my expectations, nor that of the ancient Egyptians, but a creation to suit her own reality tunnel. To put it in theological terms, she was serving a different god than I. Once I realised this I was surprised at my initial feeling. There I was, a panentheist, having a monotheistic reaction. I was reacting as if there was one right way to proceed. One correct understanding. This realisation parallels my own religious journey. Raised a Catholic I had become a panentheist after realising that everyone has their own truth. This feeling of justification made me aware of my hypocrisy. I had wanted there to be one right way. My way. I resolved to learn more about ancient Egyptian religion to see if I could gain a greater understanding of how they dealt with many understandings of divinity.

Although we can not be sure if this particular remix would have meaning for the ancient Egyptians, we can be sure it had some meaning to Cleopatra. She exclaimed during the ritual that she felt the presence of the goddess in the temple. Whether this was a separatist or an integralist expression, it was an expression of a finding of meaning. Did she mean to actually awaken a statue in the same way the ancient Egyptians did? Did she mean to enact a role play of this happening with no actual expectation that the statue would be truly awakened? Or was the meaning entirely unrelated to the religious meaning of the ritual? Perhaps it was that the ritual had meaning for her in its social sense, i.e. that she and Takelot had been able to undertake an activity together, or perhaps that a group of people in the community had been brought together to share an experience, and that the exact nature of the event was less important than the fact of bringing these people together. Whichever of these it was, these actions had meaning for her.

But is it real meaning? Do Cleopatra’s actions represent a failure to accurately recreate an ancient ritual, a democratization of knowledge leading to a remix which generates new meanings, or a social exchange where the content is irrelevant? I do not know her exact intention, but whatever it was Cleopatra was in fact acting as the ancient Egyptians did inasmuch as she was remixing old forms to make a new meaning. She was a twenty first century echo of the cult functionaries of ancient Egypt who Otto described as “entirely ignorant of the origins and meanings of the implements and words they employed”1. Perhaps her motives share something with theirs? As we will never know their motivations, we are only guessing. One thing is for sure, she was not worshiping the exact same Isis the ancient Egyptians did. Her Isis has a cult that features metempsychosis, whereas the ancient Egyptians had only one rebirth and that was into another world. Her Isis cult is a feminist one. The ancient Egyptian one was not. Her understanding of calling the goddess into the statue is not the same as the ancient Egyptians had. But it is an understanding and it is hers. This is exactly what one would expect to find in an age when the centralized production of information is over and individuals are accustomed to creating remixes to create new individual meanings2.

Cleopatra, who is a member of a reconstructionist Isis cult in meatspace, is a contemporary Pagan remixing older sources to from her new understanding, which is a trend seen throughout contemporary Paganism. Hutton3 describes a process of the construction of meaning in contemporary Paganism wherein ancient Paganisms are remixed together, along with new conceptions, in order to make a new meaning. This process can be described as, we don’t know that we don’t know and thus it becomes knowing. Early Wiccans didn’t know that Wicca wasn’t the continuation of a pre Christian goddess religion, so the idea that it was became their truth. It should be no surprise then that Cleopatra, a follower of a contemporary Pagan Isis group, is making meaning in this way. I am likewise a contemporary Pagan, whose religious understandings are a remix of prior knowledge. I sought to understand her actions, and mine, by understanding this process, as well as the challenges to it. The ancient Egyptians seem to have done the same thing. I suggest this is a general characteristic of all non monotheistic religions. Being not bound by the strictures of the monotheistic necessity of one truth, such religions are free to remix and create anew in search of the perfect understanding for each individual. Hinduism is perhaps the exemplar of this tendency.

Hutton examines this process by focusing on how contemporary Paganism has evolved since the demise of the total hegemony in regards to religion that the Christian churches previously enjoyed4 in the West. This process of remixing, of moving from a single truth, or truth being the sole domain of a single person, to a disseminated, democratization of truth is not unique to contemporary Paganism. It has been going on at least since ancient Egypt. In the Pyramid Texts the idea of a rebirth into another life belonged exclusively to the king. This concept of the exclusivity of rebirth evolved from the time of the Pyramid of Unas to the Middle Kingdom Coffin Texts, by which time some aspects of a divine rebirth were possible for all5, and had its final form in the New Kingdom Books of the Dead such as the Papyrus of Ani, by which time all Egyptians hoped for a divine rebirth into another life. This democratized remix provided a framework for new meaning for the New Kingdom Egyptians in the same way that Cleopatra’s remix provides meaning for her.

The development of the monotheistic religions from their polytheistic roots is likewise a remix. Not only did the Christians remix aspects of earlier Paganisms into their new religion6 but they went on to develop their own religious understanding from a position where the ownership of divinity was restricted to one monadic god, which over time was gradually remixed, until the creation of the concept of the trinity arose. Access to this single god was also democratized gradually over time, leading to a new remix that no longer featured the racial component. Originally only those in the Jewish race could have the one god of Abraham. They were the chosen people. Then, the first step in the democratization process, Gentiles got access to him via the Christ remix, at first only if they agreed to follow the Mosaic law and then later without that requirement. Later Islam gave access to the same god to an even wider audience. Thus monotheism was remixed and democratized using the same process that Cleopatra used in the creation of her ritual. This process describes the creation of not only religions, but of culture. Cleopatra’s remix is another instance in the ongoing meta remix that is the creation of culture. Her remix is informed by her own membership in a reconstructionist Isis religion, which she is trying to bring into the world.

In order to remix one must have information to inform one’s remixing. As there are no Egyptologists at my university there was not much at all in the library and no Egyptological journals were subscribed to. I had to rely on document delivery to send me items from other libraries (that universities should spend so much money in moving around heavy items like books in an age when instant digital copying is abundant made me frankly incredulous), what I could find on the internet, and books I acquired for my own library. Cleopatra told me she relied exclusively on the internet for information and it was evident that much of her information was derived from popular culture.

Is it that the sources we have available to us shape our understandings, or do we seek out sources that support our preconceptions? Recent research7 finds that people will see things as being in line with their beliefs regardless of the what the facts show. People will shape information to match their beliefs even if facts that contradict their beliefs are displayed before them while they are doing that shaping8. Cleopatra didn’t change her view that the ancient Egyptians had serial reincarnation, even when provided with information that demonstrated this. She made the remix that suited her purpose. She wanted to act out her stated purpose in the sims, i.e. establishing that the reconstructionist Isis cult of which she was a member in meatspace was a reiteration of ancient Egyptian beliefs and practices. She took as much information as she felt she needed from original sources, remixed it with her own ideas and then presented it as historical fact.

Was I doing the same? At the start of my research I was not an expert in Egyptian culture or religion. The more I have studied ancient Egypt the more I realise my continuing shortcomings in this regard. But there I was judging her performance by my own limited understandings. I was falling victim to the presuppositions of the ethics committee. Presuming that I was better than an other. When really I was doing exactly the same thing as her, using the resources available to me to form an understanding that meshes with my reality tunnel. This is not arrogance but necessity. I see the universe through my reality tunnel, so it is unsurprising that I preference it. I was having my experience, not Cleopatra’s.

  1. Redford, D. B. (ed), (2001), The Oxford Encyclopedia of Ancient Egypt, Oxford University Press, New York, Vol. 2, p. 606. ↩︎
  2. Reuveni, E. (2007), “Authorship in the Age of the Conducer”, Copyright Society of the USA, Vol. 54, Issue 218, http://ssrn.com/abstract=1113491, Accessed 31/01/2014. ↩︎
  3. Hutton, R., (1991), The Pagan Religions of the Ancient British Isles: Their Nature and Legacy, Blackwell, Oxford, pp. 330-341. ↩︎
  4. Hutton, R., (1991), The Pagan Religions of the Ancient British Isles: Their Nature and Legacy, Blackwell, Oxford, pp. 285-341. ↩︎
  5. Wise, E., (2009), “An ‘Odor of Sanctity’: The Iconography, Magic and Ritual of Egyptian Incense”, Studia Antiqua, Vol. 7, No. 1, p. 76. ↩︎
  6. Ferguson, E., (2003), Backgrounds of Early Christianity, William B Eerdmans Publishing, Grand Rapids. ↩︎
  7. Kahan, D. M., Peters, E., Dawson, E. C., Slovic, P., (2013), “Motivated Numeracy and Enlightened Self-Government”, Yale Law School, Public Law Working Paper No. 307, http://ssrn.com/abstract=2319992, Accessed 09/02/2014. ↩︎
  8. Kahan, D. M., Peters, E., Dawson, E. C., Slovic, P., (2013), “Motivated Numeracy and Enlightened Self-Government”, Yale Law School, Public Law Working Paper No. 307, http://ssrn.com/abstract=2319992, Accessed 09/02/2014. ↩︎

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