What Can Science Teach Us About Racism?

What Can Science Teach Us About Racism?

Cast as we are now into a state of civil unrest in some places, and massive peaceful protest in many others, it seems that racism is at the forefront of everyone’s minds. Indeed, this is a very real issue which is overdue for resolution. We, as a society, need to overcome both institutional racism, and widespread indifference to the very real struggles faced by the black community in America.

The Masonic Philosophical Society is an organization which values not only ethnic diversity, but also approaching problems with wisdom and objectivity. Particularly useful in the examination of any problem is to know what about it we can be relatively certain of? Science is the source of greatest certainty on any topic. In the case of the issues brought to the surface by the death of George Floyd recently, what can science tell us about racial bias?

THE SCIENCE OF RACIAL BIAS

Much of the rhetoric around racism is that it is learned, and we just need to unlearn it. However, if that were wholly true, then how would it have arisen in the first place? While it certainly seems true that racism is passed on culturally from generation to generation, there may actually be more to it, according to science. Most racism these days is not open or even necessarily conscious, but implicit and unconscious, at least in the majority of people. So how does this unconscious racism work?

Psychologists and neuroscientists have been studying racial biases scientifically for some time now, with many interesting findings. Much of it boils down to what many of us already know: We all carry implicit racial biases, which we would not consciously identify with, but in unconscious ways we nevertheless tend to treat people differently based on perceived race of that person. But why?

The theories of some experts are that our brains have a tendency to find patterns and to automatically categorize novel experiences or information according to those patterns, even when it isn’t rational to do so. This generalization becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy or feedback loop, as people of color are treated differently because of it, live in greater poverty, resulting in greater rates of crime, and the generalization lives on. This is a very difficult loop to escape, unless we expend conscious effort to change it.

So, based on this analysis, we can say that there is both a cultural and neurological component. Yes, we inherit it from culture, but the reason it keeps perpetuating is because of cognitive tendencies related to how our brains work, and perhaps why the phenomenon arose in the first place.

EMPATHY AND RACE

My experience as a white man with a majority of white friends and family has led me to believe that most white people do not overtly hate black people, although we surely carry some of the implicit biases described above, which we hopefully make efforts to override. I would say that the biggest issue in our time is not only implicit racism, but relative indifference to the struggles faced by the African American community among many people who look like me.

Science: Exploring the Human Brain, Race, and Empathy

The Human Brain, Race, and Empathy

In a way, you could say that this is actually the biggest problem we face, because it’s what prevents action being taken to stop the small, truly hateful minority from doing what they do to persecute innocent people simply for having black skin, especially in our police forces. If more people were seriously concerned about it, things would change, which is hopefully what we’re seeing with the current events.

This is where some other research concerning race and empathy becomes very interesting. Essentially, what was observed was that rats were much less likely to help other rats who looked different from them than they were their “own kind.” However, researchers later added a variable, where they raised the different types of rats together from birth, and the result was that the rats that were raised together were equally likely to help one another out.

The takeaway? We are cautious about those who are different from us, particularly when we are not accustomed to them. In a sense, a certain trust has to be built in our brain, you could say, by spending time with those who appear very different from us; otherwise, we will regard them with greater caution, and potential fear, especially when cultural biases already incline us to do so.

SEARCHING FOR SOLUTIONS 

The good news it that the parts of our brains that are primarily engaged in these kinds of reactions are the most basic, instinctual parts, such as the amygdala, the “fear center.” This area is activated automatically when we are shown pictures of people who appear very different from us, in some studies. Our higher reasoning ability is located in other places, such as the frontal lobes, and it has the ability to override these animalistic, automatic processes, through higher level decision-making and conscious effort, as many people obviously have done to become less racist.

Understanding the underlying biological factors contributing to implicit racism and lack of empathy for black struggles can help us not just to overcome this problem in ourselves, but also to understand why it’s there in the first place. Rather than placing judgments on people that they are “evil” or “without conscience” for being less concerned with racial issues than they ought to be, we can understand that a deficit of empathy to those perceived to be different from us is a natural bias which we must expend effort to overcome. 

FREEMASONRY AND TRUE EQUALITY

In that case, is it any wonder that many people haven’t put forth the effort to do that inner work, especially when not much in their culture demanded it from them? We must all overcome natural tendencies, for instance when we resist things like greed, lust, gluttony, or laziness.

Really, this is simply an aspect of being an upstanding moral person. We could simply add racial bias and indifference to that list of problematic natural tendencies, and consider it something which we must put forth conscious effort to overcome, especially since lives are at stake. We can also make a conscious effort to diversify our friend groups, so that we are less inclined to live in a bubble of only those who look like us.

Meet on the Level

Masonry and the Promotion of Equality

As Co-Masons, we are implored to overcome our bodily passions and unhealthy tendencies, and to function according to a higher purpose of aspiration to knowledge, and the betterment of humanity. We can and should consider overcoming our racial biases to be an important part of that process. 

We are well aware of the unfortunate historical reality of mainstream Freemasonry’s past and even present (in some places), when it comes to racial segregation or exclusion. Although we are an entirely separate institution, we would like to make it clear to all that race is not a factor which we even remotely consider, when it comes to accepting new Masons into our ranks. People of all ethnicities, political views, genders, and religions are welcome in our temples.

 

The Science Debate

The Science Debate

One would think there is no debate about science. The scientific method is, quite simply this: “a method of procedure that has characterized natural science since the 17th century, consisting in systematic observation, measurement, and experiment, and the formulation, testing, and modification of hypotheses.” What I find extremely interesting about this statement is the use of the word “nature,” or rather, natural science. It bears noting that “natural sciences” are those sciences which have to deal with the physical world – astronomy, physics, biology, geology, etc. In other words, it is a study of, you guessed it, the natural world.

At a recent M.P.S. meeting discussing the impact of humanity on the earth’s physiology, or eco-system, many arm-chair scientists spoke up and theorized on the state of our globe’s atmosphere. One person noted that there is a “layer of bacteria” it the atmosphere, and this could be the cause of some of the earth’s climate issues. Skeptical, as always, I wanted to know more. Using the internet and what I hope were reputable sources, I determined there is not a “layer” of bacteria but viruses and bacteria do get swept up into our atmosphere and in some cases, may be able to thrive there. There is no indication, however, of their impact on Earth’s changing or evolving climate.

img_0451The activities I undertook to understand what someone was saying were also a topic of this very same discussion. We have many ways of obtaining information and while the internet and search engines are helpful, they are not the “end all” of research. When libraries and bookstores were the norm, the person doing the research had to know the topic area, perhaps some reputable authors or scientists, and then searched and read through information to find data to support, or deny, whatever message they were researching. Now, it is slightly backwards – we’re provided the data quickly, but with little background on who, or what, produced this data.

While the tools may have also made the data easier to find, we have become less able to do actual research. In a recent airport visit, I watched a “Big Story” about a man who became fascinated with sea horses. He moved to California from his native Iowa, and during a dive in 2016, he spotted sea horses in the Long Beach harbor. He became fascinated with the creatures and now averages 1500 miles per year, driving and diving up and down the coast of California, to study sea horses. He is not a biologist or scientist of any kind. Yet, over time, he’s taught himself to start taking data, creating biomes for these creatures to study them, and become one of the foremost authorities on sea horses. Why? Because they fascinate him. He is passionate about them. Dare I say, he loves them.

We normal humans have become subjected to being fed “science” and rarely make the time or foment the passion to study a single piece of nature. We might find flowers beautiful or animals majestic, but we move right back to our computers and away from the natural world. When we get out into the world, we begin to understand it in a way that computers and spoon-fed data can never provide. Rather than find a path to learn, we are mortified by “not knowing” and become fearful. We look for information to make us feel better, to generally support our suppositions. We do not gather data based on observation or theory, like our friend above, nor do we really obtain knowledge. We lack understanding. We take what we hear, and return to the world around us a feedback loop of information that is consumed but not subsumed.

483c5e6d-977b-48b0-9d69-bbbc4c60790a-921-000000d05cd6384bWhy is science, a respect for science, important? For two reasons, I believe. The first is our ignorance of true science, of true nature, ignores the facts of the world around us. It drives us away from being of nature, when in fact we are nature. We lose context and disseminate false information. Fake news isn’t fake because someone simply lies; fake news is fake news when we perpetuate it without solid understanding and investing in personal research. We then make choices about how we live and how humanity thrives based on misinformation.

The second reason true learning of nature is important is because understanding nature stops fear and anger in its tracks. Understanding the larger cycles of the earth, geologic cycles, helps us understand better what is, and is not, human impact. It complicates what we want to be simple, but it complicates it because it is complicated. Nature needs to be understood by our individual selves, otherwise, we’re not really learning. We are part of this great body of animal, mineral, and vegetable. We’re made of stardust and earth, of air and water. We’re electrical and chemical. So is the world around us. If we seek to understand the universe, we are really seeking to understand ourselves. Destroying this ignorance destroys fear and hate.

48b17022-8269-4ce9-9a6e-1e009bd6dc11-921-000000d41d537600While I think we should question everything, I am not so sure there should be debate about science – about its existence and use in our lives. There should be no debate about nature, about physics or chemistry, no debate about exploration nor about the extrapolation of research. We should all become our own scientists in this world, curious and intuitive, passionate about life. Humanity isn’t separate from nature; humanity is nature, and thus, we study nature, we study ourselves. We learn. We grow, We become better.

Curiosity and Intuition

Curiosity and Intuition

Not long ago, a friend asked how I’ve come to this point in life with the vocation and avocations that I have. Were these all conscious choices or not? I thought long and hard about it, and decided it was a combination of mind and gut – of curiosity and intuition. Sometimes, I felt like the job offers appeared before me and the universe was saying, “Okay, how about this one?” Curiosity propelled me toward research and ultimately jumping in. Other times, my intuition said, “Hey! You need to be over there, now!” So, I took the fresh position without any research whatsoever. Pure gut. Pure terror, more like it.

Yet, at each of these moments, I grew in equal measure. Curiosity provided expansion while intuition afforded me introspection and trust in something greater than myself. Fate. God. Destiny. Connectedness. Consciousness. Whatever you wish to call it, that seems to be the place where that voice-not-ours originates.

According to the University of Chicago, “intuition”  was first used in a text at the end of the 15th century. Until the 17th century intuition meant “mentally looking at”; “the act of regarding, examining, or inspecting”; “a view, regard, or consideration of something”, all of which are now obsolete meanings. In the modern world, it reflects insight not necessarily borne of cognition. In fact, the root of the word intuition means “to look over, to watch over.” Who, or what, is watching and even more important, who or what is speaking to us?

Conversely, curiosity is nothing but mental questioning, inquisitiveness stemming from, “I don’t know but I really want to know.” One might say it has less to do with the mind and more to do with the heart. It is an eagerness to learn, a desire for expansiveness of mind, body, or emotion. Curiosity makes us step into the water without knowing the depth or temperature, to see what lies at the bottom. Oddly enough, the word curiosity stems from the same root as “to cure.” Curiosity is hungry mind.

Both words have that measure of terror with them. I don’t mean this literally; I mean that there is the sense of the unknown, the essence that we might be too fragile to cope with what is on the other side of knowledge, or that we might not like what we find. The opposites of these two words, curiosity and intuition, might be equally interesting to measure: indifference and intellect, respectively. They take on a hard aspect, something cold and somewhat lifeless.

Why explore these? I am curious. Why do they exist? Why are humans propelled to investigate while others do not? Is this an evolutionary drive? Why do we rely on intuition when it might steer us wrong? Are we really able to let go of fact and simply go with our gut?

This question becomes highlighted when we talk about divinity and our motivations in perfecting humanity. What would our humanity look like without curiosity and intuition? Would it be cold intellect, heartless? Or would it be mindless automatons, moving through the world without the reason or passion to ask why? Would either of these antithetical properties propel us forward toward becoming better versions of ourselves? I’d have to say no.

Yet, today, we fight something something insidious, something related and underlying: apathy. We fight it in our politics, our work places, our schools, and even in our families. It’s easier to take the intuition and curiosity to the depths rather than bring it into the light. It’s interesting that this is what our Masonic Philosophical Society meetings do – bring out curiosity and intuition and work toward crushing apathy.

And time after time, I hear how needed these meetings are, how hungry people are for color where there is only black and white. Only divisiveness. It seems to me that something we should, as the “human race” should cultivate is curiosity and intuition, in our babies and children. Forty years ago, Dr. Wayne Dyer cultivated the idea that we limit curiosity in our children, and it creates frightened or apathetic adults; adults who do look to others for guidance at every turn are neither curious nor intuitive. They have lost touch with themselves and thus, lose their own sovereignty. Can humanity move forward without such sovereignty? I do not think so.

So, here is the encouragement:

  • Be curious about something you “think” you detest.
  • Listen with an open mind to a political rival, and ask questions.
  • When the voice tells you to send your friend an email, do it.
  • Pick up that call from a number you don’t know, when the drive tells you to.
  • Listen to the quite nudges of your mind and heart.
  • Smile at a stranger, hug your boss or your coworker if you need to, and learn to listen to the subtleties of human movement in the world.

The world opens wide, full of wonder, when we listen deeply.

Dharma, Duty, and Freemasonry: Part II

Dharma, Duty, and Freemasonry: Part II

This is Part II of a two part series on Dharma, Duty, and Freemasonry. Readers can view the first installment here: Part I.


“Hindu Dharma is like a boundless ocean teeming with priceless gems. The deeper you dive, the more treasures you find.”  –  Mahatma Gandhi, 1946


In the previous post of this series, I discussed the concepts of duty and dharma. Here, we continue to explore the factors in determining one’s dharma, dharma’s theological foundation, and address the Masonic connection of these themes. 

The Ashrams: Stages of Life

THE next factor in determining one’s Dharma is to consider the stage of life one is currently in: Youth (Student), Adulthood (Householder), Middle Age (Transition away from Worldly focus on the material), and Old Age (Devotion and isolation). These stages are as follows:

Brahmacārya:
  • Life of Preparation, responsibilities as a student
  • Duty: To learn and gain skills

Gṛhastha:

  • Life of the Householder, with family and other social roles
  • Duty: Focus on family and building up Material wealth

Vānprastha:

  • Life of Reflection, retired from past actions, transitioning from worldly occupations and affairs
  • Duty: Contribute back to society with intellectual, spiritual, or material wealth & spending time furthering spiritual development
Sannyāsa:
  • Life of Renunciation, giving away all property, becoming a recluse and devotion to spiritual matters.
  • Duty: Meditation, spiritual study, and worship

Note that individuals move through these stages on a unique basis. Some skip stages entirely, and some never reach the later stages. This is a part of one’s Svadharma or calling in life.

Syadharma: An Individual’s Calling or Life Purpose

FOR example, Sannyasa is a form of asceticism and is represented by a state of disinterest and detachment from material life with the purpose of spending one’s life in peaceful, love-inspired, simple spiritual life. Siddhartha, or Buddha, walked away from the material life to follow the path of Sannyāsa. Similar to a Monk or Nun, individuals may take this path after Brahmacarva and skip the two intermediate stages.

This means that what is “right” action for one individual is “wrong” conduct for another.  A soldier’s duty may require the individual to kill someone, but murder is incorrect conduct for a banker or teacher.

Dharma in The Bhagavad Gita

THERE is a 2,000-year-old treatise, called the Bhagavad Gita or “Song of God”, which is considered the world’s greatest scripture on Dharma. A smaller section of the larger epic work called the Mahabharata, the seven hundred verses of the Bhagavad Gita are arranged in a conversational format between two main speakers Krishna and Arjuna.

Dharma is the first word in the Bhagavad Gita. The great work begins when the blind old king, Dhritarashtra, asks his secretary, Sanjaya, about the battle that was to take place at “the field of Dharma” (Dharma-kshetra). In the name of Dharma, Arjuna (a great warrior and general of the Pandavas) argues for nonviolence by assuming that to attack and kill so many leading men, nearly all of whom are fathers and husbands, will destabilize the important families and communities for which these men are responsible. The families themselves are vital to the peace and virtue of society. 

Lord Krishna (God and Arjuna’s spiritual master) does not at once address Arjuna’s argument about Dharma, as we would expect in a typical debate. Rather, the Lord first reveals to Arjuna, in twenty verses (Bg. 2.11- 30) the eternal nature of the soul. Then the Lord comes back to the topic of Dharma to show that it is Arjuna who is neglecting his Dharma by refusing to fight:

“And even considering your personal Dharma as well, it is not right for you to hesitate. There is nothing better for a warrior than a fight based on Dharma.” (Bg. 2.31)

Here, we find that Dharma itself is meant to assist the real goal of life: understanding the eternal soul and its relationship with the Supreme Soul, Krishna. Lord Krishna concludes this brief reference to Dharma as one’s personal duty by saying: “Now if you do not execute this battle, then having given up your personal Dharma and reputation, you shall incur sin.” (Bg. 2.33)

Throughout the rest of the Volume, Lord Krishna speaks of Dharma in terms of His own teaching of spiritual knowledge and not directly in response to Arjuna’s argument about Dharma as ordinary religious and moral practices. Krishna’s next reference to Dharma reinforces his earlier statement that Arjuna must perform his own Dharma and not neglect it in the name of Dharma. Arjuna can neither protect Dharma nor keep himself on the spiritual platform if he abandons the duties born of his nature. Krishna explains:

“One’s own Dharma, performed imperfectly, is better than another’s Dharma well performed. Destruction in one’s own Dharma is better, for to perform another’s Dharma leads to danger.” (Bg. 3.35)

Thus, the complete picture begins to emerge. An effective government must not only create laws but enforce them as well. Similarly, the Supreme Lord brings forth His law as Dharma. When obedience to His law collapses, and human beings instead propagate their own illicit “law,” the Lord descends to protect the good citizens of His kingdom, vanquish the outlaws who practice adharma, and reestablish in human society the prestige and power of His will.

We can now see why Arjuna’s initial argument – that to obey Lord Krishna and fight would go against Dharma – cannot be correct. Dharma is nothing but the Lord’s will. For Arjuna to fight, then, is true Dharma.

Thus, Lord Krishna starkly contrasts the ordinary Dharma of the Vedas with “this Dharma,” which is pure devotional service to Krishna. Krishna concludes the important ninth chapter by showing the power of this Dharma – unalloyed Krishna consciousness – to purify and save the soul. It is simply on the strength of devotion to Krishna that even a man of terrible conduct quickly becomes devoted to Dharma. So, in this manner all human beings can approach duty or Dharma in the same manner. If all individuals seek the Divine and follow the leading which springs forth, the different rules or requirements of individual Dharma become a single path.

Dharma and Freemasonry

DUTY is an important concept in Freemasonry, similar to a code of conduct by which individuals should mold their character. Moreover, members are instructed to do their duty regardless of the consequence.

Since Masonry is an institution founded on the highest virtues and principles of morality, Masonic duties are in harmony with proper conduct and the laws of their country. Some of these duties include:

To think high, to speak truth, to do well, to be tolerant to others, to search after truth, and to practice liberty under law, fraternal equality, justice, and solidarity.

Moreover, Freemasonry calls on its members to follow an individual path while also working together to uplift humanity. The Craft also inspires the cultivation of similar virtues to those considered part of the Dharma system such as patience, fortitude, and prudence. For some individuals, I posit that Freemasonry could be viewed as a major component or the culmination of that Brother’s individual dharma. What do you think?

The Elohim – Part I, The Sons of God

The Elohim – Part I, The Sons of God

The term “Elohim” has been alternately identified as a name of God, angels, demons, or other types of supernatural beings. It has been associated with The Shining Ones, the Anunnaki, Nephilim, and the Watchers. So, what is more likely the case? And what are the implications for Humanity?

The word Elohim is usually thought of as a name for God in the Hebrew Bible, appearing over 2500 times in that text. The context in which the word is used makes that assertion less clear, however, for in some instances, Elohim appears to refer to multiple gods.

A look into the word’s origins may help determine its meaning. The word’s etymology often sheds some light on its original meaning, but in this case, Elohim’s roots are somewhat obscure. The Online Etymology Dictionary indicates the word as plural of “Eloh,” which means God. The entry also states the word is of unknown etymology and may be an augmentation of “El,” also meaning God.

Examining the word’s Hebrew spelling may also provide some indications of its root, read, from right to left, as Aleph – Lamed – Hey – Yod – Mem.

Hebrew characters, when forming a word, often tell a story as each character has its own set of meanings. In this case, the Hebrew word Elohim could be interpreted in two ways. In the first interpretation, the first character (Aleph) can be read as the existence of God’s hidden mysteries and their revelation to certain men.

Continuing on, there are those who teach men God’s mysteries, who are the same individuals (i.e., the Elohim) who goad men into what he needs to learn, encouraging man’s action forward. As those men learn God’s mysteries, His knowledge comes into those men’s hearts – spirit is breathed into him. As man becomes more spiritual, they become humbler and they become the Word over time. Through this learning, one result is that wisdom springs forth from your speech.

A second possible interpretation stems from the viewpoint of the Elohim as intermediaries or emissaries of God. The Vev represents the link the Elohim represent between God and man, heaven and earth. The Elohim also enable the spiritual to be made actual in the physical world – they are also the connection between the physical and the spiritual. From the prior, the Elohim provide opportunities for man to choose to open the door and access God directly.

Research indicates some possible associations with the second interpretation, but the connections are tenuous at best. The Sumerians (c. 4,500 to 1,900 BCE) believed in a divine race of beings named the Anunnaki. Based on imprecise translations of a small subset of some 22,000 hieroglyphic tablets, the interpretations vary from source to source. Some identify the Anunnaki as a pantheon of high-level gods while others relegate them to a much lower status having been banished to the underworld by younger and stronger gods.

From The Oxford Companion to World Mythology,the Anunnaki “are the Sumerian deities of the old primordial line; they are chthonic (in, under or beneath the earth) deities of fertility, associated eventually with the underworld, where they became judges” over the question of life and death. In some sources, the Anunnaki are a diffuse set of natural gods associated with various aspects found throughout nature while others indicate a specific number of Anunnaki with specific roles, even kings. One unique line of thought comes from Zecharia Sitchin in his 1972 book The Twelfth Planet. In that book, Sitchin proposes that the Anunnaki are of alien origin and used genetic engineering to create man.

In the Bible, is directly translated as “sons of god” and are associated with the Anunnaki in Genesis 6:4: “…after that, when the sons of God came in unto the daughters of men, and they bore children to them…”

Other potential variations include “The Shining Ones,” referenced in The Hidden Doctrine authored by Helena Blavatsky:

…behold him lifting the veil and unfurling it from East to West. He shuts out the above, and leaves the below to be seen as the great illusion. He marks the places for the Shining Ones, and turns the upper into a shoreless sea of fire…” ( Part1, Cosmic Evolution – Stanza III)

“…these are the three-fold, the four-fold downward; the “mind-born” sons of the first Lord;the Shining Seven…” ( Stanza VII)

To be continued…

The Illusion That Is Caste

The Illusion That Is Caste

The word “caste” comes from the Portuguese word casta, meaning “race, lineage, tribe or breed.” It originally comes from the Latin word castus meaning pure. The Spanish and Portuguese used the word differently in the Renaissance period; to the Spanish, it was applied more in a hereditary way, indicating family and/or lineage. For the Portuguese, it leaned toward something more akin to “breed” or social standing.

Many know that India was a British Colony but what many do not know is that it was a Portuguese one as well. From the beginning of the 16th century, the “Estado de India” or State of India was a Portuguese colony until 1961, when the country of India invaded Portuguese India and a treaty was signed. In fact, the Portuguese had a far longer history as a colonial power in India than did the British. For an American, this is nearly unheard of unless you are a history buff. While this is as oversimplification of the complicated workings of colonialism in India, we will delve into this to make a point, I promise.

This same time period of Portuguese rule (Early 1500s to 20th Century) is marked by British rule in India, which ended in 1947. While the Portuguese were the first, after the Romans, to begin trading with modern India, it was the British who seized dominance by the mid-19th Century. In 1661, Portugal was at war with Spain and needed assistance from England. This led to the marriage of Princess Catherine of Portugal to Charles II of England, who imposed a dowry that included the insular and less inhabited areas of southern Bombay while the Portuguese managed to retain all the mainland territory north of Bandra up to Thana and Bassein.

While the British were in India before this, this marriage marked the beginning of rulership, not just trade, within India. What is interesting to note is what while the Portuguese were using the word casta to denote the hereditary social groups they perceived in India almost as soon as they arrived, it wasn’t until 1613, during the time of British interest, that we see the word translated to “caste.”

BrahminPriestAssistantChristopherPillitzImageBankGetty-56a0428f5f9b58eba4af9280What may surprise some people is that there is no Hindu word for “caste.” In Hinduism, rising from ideas within the Rig Veda, the term associated with the Vedic social structure is varna.

According to one author, “The Four Varna system reflects a deep ecological and yogic vision of social and universal unity very different from the divisive idea of caste by birth.” This is an organic and natural social order that does not coincide with a hierarchy of rule which was applied by both the British and the Portuguese. The term varna is not specifically found in Hindu writings until later, possibly as an add-on in the Purusha Sukta. The text noted to discuss this social structure is:

When they divided Purusa how many portions did they make? What do they call his mouth, his arms? What do they call his thighs and feet? The Brahman was his mouth, of both his arms was the Rajanya made. His thighs became the Vaishya, from his feet the Shudra was produced.

The basic idea of this is that we, humanity, are one construct made up of different, outward talents. The one construct, the Purusa, is the cosmic being, or some say, the cosmos itself. All human structure is built off this Purusa. Some may have an inclination toward knowledge and thought (Brahman), like a philosopher or religious person, and some way have an inclination toward service (Shudra) like a fireman or waiter.

However, all are part of the same construct called humanity and all have a part to play in helping the body move. No one of these is higher than the other – they are all necessary. Additionally, there was never the idea, in Vedic writings, of a non-Varna, or outcast/out caste member. Everyone is part of the whole. It would not make any sense to have a whole and then have something that is not part of the whole. To quote another author, “There is in this original Vedic model no outcaste, Dalit or untouchable. Each Varna constitutes a necessary part of the whole and all are mutually interdependent. Each is a manifestation of the same Divine consciousness working in humanity.”

Basor_Dalit_casteIndeed, this is an application of the British and Portuguese who were exerting control over the Indian population.

Either through misunderstanding or, perhaps, intentional co-opting, the Varna outline was translated and Westernized into a caste-oriented system where everyone fell into a suppressive class system, one type of human being better than the other. The adoption of these changes, from varna to caste, caused the dalit to be “created,” those that were considered outcasts and not part of society.

Dalit was a term coined about 1873, by the leader of a non-brahman-centric movement called Satyashodhak Samaj. Over time, this rigid caste hierarchy became the consciousness of a country. I remember being younger and hearing the words, “there is no caste system in India.” Yet, every Indian person I had met had embraced the idea of perhaps one group being above all others, superior to them, and others not being of equal value. The term unclean was part of the vernacular.

It’s important to know the origins of this, I think, not because of the events of history but because of the corruption of something uplifting and universal into the tool to create an oppressive society. Said clearly, from the American Institute of Vedic Studies:

“The Vedic social order was meant to instill an intrinsic feeling of unity in each individual with the greater society, and human society with the greater universe. The Varna system was based upon a transcendent ideal of human unity in the Divine, not an effort to give power and domination to one section of society.”

What was once a purely unifying religious concept was co-opted to create disharmony and foment discord among people.

gahndiWe have all seen this, as base, human need to tear down another group, using religion, education, resources, or a combination of all three in order to build the suppressive group up – whatever ‘up’ means.

Freemasons care about these things because, in the search for Truth, the goal is to build up and not tear down. It is to seek truth and Truth. In order to do this, we need to understand not only human history but the motivations behind the scenes. It doesn’t hurt to dig and explore the perhaps little known histories of the world.

One of the best podcasts recommended in this is “Revisionist History,” by Malcolm Gladwell. He does an excellent job bringing out about the little known facts of what we have taken to be “truth” and made the visible. Would that we were all as curious.

There are many things which are, I think, of interest to those who want to know Truth and build a better world, things which are knowledge gaps for us. Curiosity and an open find fill those gaps and shed light.  I know that I will never again think of the caste system as something arising from Hinduism, and I think this gives me the tools to help others think differently as well.

Dogma, Change, and Freemasonry

Dogma, Change, and Freemasonry

When the Norse arrived in Greenland, in the mid 10th Century, they found a land that was experiencing a global warming trend with green fields, retreating ice floes, and oceans teaming with fish and mammals. They built settlements, farms, and began hunting walrus for the ivory trade and beach-dwelling seals for food. They imported most of their day to day goods: iron, grains, wool, and livestock.

By the end of the 13th Century, the Norse had begun struggling with soil erosion and trade shortfalls.  At this time, the Inuit had arrived, migrating from Canada through Nova Scotia to Greenland, as their drifting whale population and food supply moved through the melting ice. The Inuit enjoyed a thriving culture in Greenland yet had little positive contact with the Norse. The Norse viewed the Inuit as “skaelings” or “wretches.” The Inuit did perform some raids on the Norse and vice versa; however, for the most part they kept apart from each other.

Within a few decades, in the 14th Century, a minor ice age began again, the globe cooled once more due to a volcanic eruption in the Philippines. Grass began to be harder to grow and the continued erosion of the land was impossible to abate. It was more difficult to raise livestock or farm the land and using soil for sod buildings became tougher to gather. The Black Plague had ravaged mainland Europe and while it didn’t hit Greenland, it decimated the population with whom the Greenland Norse traded, particularly Norway. Ivory prices also plummeted due to the more elephant ivory being imported from sub-Saharan Africa. With sources of income drying up, the Norse had no real way to continue to import the goods they felt they needed to survive, primarily iron and livestock.

By the end of the 14th Century, the Greenland Norse had disappeared. The Inuit continued to thrive on the island and thrive there to this day.

What happened?

Dogma happened.

We typically hear dogma in relation to religion and religious teaching, but it is anything which limits our scope of possibilities. Dogma is some principle or set of principles which some authority has set as being unquestionably true. That is the key word: unquestioning. People who are enslaved by dogma rarely realize that they should question what they are doing. Dogma may, or as typical, may not depend on facts. Dogma is that which enslaves us to a belief, not a fact. It also crystallizes our world view and leaves us shut off from possibility.

The Norse could have adapted wholly to their new surroundings. They were not traditional hunters but the climate forced them to learn adapt or die. Yet, they could not bring themselves to become whalers and learn how to navigate the waters in kayaks, which were for the heathen Inuit. They found it impossible to move toward a very different society, one which could have helped them survive and thrive in the changing world conditions. Rather than learn from the Inuit, they chose to remain separate, slaves to their “old ways.”

hvalsey_church_greenland_-_creative_comonsAs we know, “growth and comfort cannot coexist (Ginni Rometty, CEO IBM).” Adaptation is dynamic and evolutionary. It involves shedding skin, ideas, thoughts, language, and sometime rules, mores, and laws. Adaptation and change require a flexible personal philosophy, agile thinking, and the ability to not take change personally. Had the Norse embraced the ways they felt as wretched, they might have created a new culture which encompassed the ideals of both the Inuit and Norse, thereby creating something greater than each was individually. The Roman Empire adapted and changed to the pulse of Christianity, thereby creating one of the most potent theological forces in history; by adaptation, the essence of both survived.

Our current times are rife with chaos and while the banners of Freemasonry proclaim, “Ordo ab Chao,” the final piece of this saying is “Chao ab Ordo.” Change and strife and chaos are necessary to be able to form new order and new ways of thought. A forest fire destroys the substantial, old trees but also brings life to new growth.  Freemasonry as an institution requires both order and chaos to survive. There are those, especially in malecraft Freemasonry, who state that Freemasonry is a dying institution, membership is down, it’s difficult to get interest, or the education of Freemasonry is antiquated. Freemasonry as an entity isn’t and won’t be dying. What is dying is the Freemasonry as they knew of it. And this is good.

I was recently asked, “why do we need all this change? Why do we need a new ritual? Why should we think about how we change our world?” Someone commented recently on another article regarding Freemasonry in Africa, “why would we be in a place where there is so much corruption and hatred?” I say, who better to lead the way in change than those of us who should, could, or would be most able to do it? Isn’t it Freemasons, warriors of Truth, Freedom, and Knowledge, who should set the example?

This isn’t the first time Freemasonry, regardless of the Order or Obedience, has faced change.

During the Morgan Affair, membership in Freemasonry in America dwindled and nearly went extinct in the fires of the Anti-Masonic Political Party. In 1994, Le Droit Humain’s American Federation changed dramatically, with a new name, new structure, and new purpose. Even now, there are conspiracy theories about Freemasons taking over the world or specific governments.

“Over the centuries, masons have gathered in conclaves, meetings, lodges, and congresses–all to debate the changes they faced and the direction they should move. In an earlier period, a rough conglomeration of stand-alone lodges in England organized themselves in a tavern to become the United Grand Lodge of England and the progenitor of American Freemasonry,” states a 2018 malecraft Freemason’s article.

Change comes generally in an era of upheaval, of chaos, on the waves of a stormy ocean. This kind of change requires a different way of thinking than current paradigms. It requires the death of dogma.

Humanity in the 21st Century is at this same cusp of dynamic evolution. In a technologically-vibrant era of #metoo, LGBTQ rights, globalization, world resource constraints, and materialism, humanity hungers for something more than holding fast to outdated and antiquated modes of thinking. Freemasonry must stand at the precipice of that change and be willing to jump. We cannot hold onto rigid words, thoughts, and actions without tolerance and service to the ever-changing needs of humanity. Freemasons are the Chaos and the Order. Freemasons understand that without one there is not the other. They need to understand what chaos and destruction are before they can form new paradigms and thought patterns, thus changing society.

Freemasons represent the totality of possibilities, not simply what we deem “the best” by our own personal standards. Freemasons embody adaptability as well as honor and tradition; they follow a framework of ideals that are the unchanging Truth of Nature as well as variation that is Nature. Changing for change’s sake is ridiculous; change to adapt to the needs of humanity is true evolution. Thoughtful and conscious change moves us all toward the goal of perfecting humanity.

Ordo Ab ChaoWhat happens when you adapt? The Honorable Order of American Co-Masonry recently changed its name to The Honorable Order of Universal Co-Masonry, adding United Federation of Lodges. Inboxes and voicemails have overflowed with contacts from around the world, interested in Freemasonry – India, China, Hong Kong, Serbia, Sweden, Greece, Romania and the Congo to name but a few. Groups in England and Lebanon have sought out the Order. There is explosive activity in Costa Rica and interest is peaking all over Latin America. Study centers of the Masonic Philosophical Society, especially online, are full of seekers of knowledge and Truth. Change in technology and format made this happen. Changing the name opened up the possibilities to those who are seeking global comraderies and led them to the Order’s porch. Yet, many were not ready to face this change and raise themselves the possibilities Universal Freemasonry would find. The interaction of these new voices forces Freemasonry’s membership to adapt – to learn new languages, to travel to many places, to challenge their own beliefs about racism, globalism, gender issues, education, family, and morality. Meeting this challenge and change requires tolerance and introspection as well as brotherly love toward all of humanity. Freemasons learn that they are no different from others and that all are sprung from “the same stock.” The Freemason begins to see what the core of his ritual is and learns to exercise his own philosophy applied to that framework. That is growth. That is the shedding of dogma.

So too, ritual adaptations and reinstatements, not innovations, reinvigorate the ideals that Freemasonry preserves and puts them in tune with a modern mind. If Freemason’s primary care is to keep the mysteries, they need to be able to do that with a mindset of being present and current, not reenacting the dogma of what we’ve done in the past.

People leave Freemasonry for one main reason: disappointment. Freemasonry either doesn’t seem relevant, inviting, or current. Perhaps their expectations were not met. Perhaps their expectations were not properly set. While Freemasonry should not adapt to individual preferences and needs, it can and should adapt to the changes in humanity whilst never forgetting its true purpose: keeping the mysteries for the generations to come. What does our world need? What does humanity need? Can we, in keeping with our ideals, assist in that Work?

Freemasonry, and Freemasons, need to focus on the perfecting of all we do – ritual work, service, brotherly relief and agape, as well as maintaining the material aspects of Freemasonry – clothing, regalia, our temples. This doesn’t mean, however, that these outward trappings – clothing, ritual, regalia – will always be the same. It is in how Freemasons go about employing the Craft that should stand the test of time, while adapting to the change without. This adaptation keeps us all flexible and malleable, able to weather the strong tides of hatred, fanaticism, bigotry, and falsehood. It enables us to withstand the fear of chaos and the boredom of order.

darwinartistinresidence“Organisms that possess heritable traits that enable them to better adapt to their environment compared with other members of their species will be more likely to survive, reproduce, and pass more of their genes on to the next generation,” said Darwin.  It should the the focus of Freemasons to be able to pass on that “genetic material” of Freemasonry to the next generation and the one after that by learning to adapt, to think differently and celebrate the change that undoubtedly will come to us all, willingly or not.

The Masonic Family

The Masonic Family

Having been a Freemason for over twenty years, I have seen many people come and go in the Fraternity. There are people who were well-established when I first entered into the Order and are still by my side today. There are many members who have joined over the years and added to the sweetness and depth of this large family unit. Some people have come in for as little as one meeting, and others have stayed on and off over the years. The path of Freemasonry is an open road that may see many people branch off.

As a member of fifteen different Lodges of varying degrees, each one of them is, to me, a sacred family where I am safe, secure, and can be myself. I can breathe easily and feel the fraternity that comes with a real love and dedication to a common goal: the perfecting of humanity of which each of us is a part.

When we join, we join for different reasons. We join to find like-minded people, to find some sense of peace with the Architect of the Universe, to have that “A-ha!” moment, to have a group of people to converse with, to break bread and share hard work, or perhaps to share in aging and passing with authentic humans. The road of Freemasonry isn’t easy and many people fall off the track – some earlier, some later – but the journey towards the higher degrees becomes less crowded and in many ways, more intimate and sweeter for having shared the labors of self-improvement.

The act of accepting the different paths of different people is extremely difficult. These are people with whom you have shared life’s journey and striking moments. From marriage to the birth of children, the death of parents and friends, to their own old age and passing, it is in these moments of strife and hardship, joy and bearing that Freemasons are there with each other, supporting, sharing, and providing true fortitude.

These are not easy moments and they are intensified by the quickening that focused self-improvement provides. They are sticky and painful at times. I have had nights of tearful crying, angst over love and loss, and laughter until I got in trouble. Discipline does that. It breeds purer moments of real life.

It also creates the moments when we stop and think: what is a family?

The birth family has always been, to me, that group of people who take care of you from that early age and teach you how to move in the world. They teach you how to survive. They do the best they can, with the tools and experiences of their own lives, to provide that guidance to help the child thrive in a very unsure and chaotic world. We carry those lessons, for better or ill, with us into our own realms, creating new families from these seedlings of experience.

Like the leaf that drops into the still pond, the ripples of one family flow and collide with those of others, creating an intricate pattern of artful energies of creation. We create families, when we’re older, to find a sense of stability and continuance. We may have children, adopt children, foster children, foster animals, care for the aged, or create intimate ties with friends, neighbors, and community. We may pastor to a church where the family is quite large, or we may shepherd the town council, where our influence might be low. We all form a family of woven relationships in the creation of… something.

Masonic families, like all families, can be quite intense. My childhood father was not a Freemason but his father and mother were extremely active in not only Freemasonry but Eastern Star, The Shriners, the White Shrine, and other auxiliary bodies. For nearly forty years, they were caretakers of the temple building behind their house; their days were filled with card games, socials, dinners, and Lodge meetings, fancy affairs and day-to-day work of Freemasonry. They cleaned the Lodge room and scrubbed the bathrooms, repaired the kitchen equipment and planted flower beds. They only stopped when cancer and Parkinson’s slowed their activities.

When they passed, I took up the mantle of Freemasonry. While they lived, I had no idea a woman could be a Freemason and neither did they. Freemasonry was a hobby my grandparents did but never, ever discussed it with the larger family.

My father harbored a deep resentment toward Freemasonry; he felt that it took my grandfather from his side. It hardened my grandfather’s ideals in a way that he imposed on my father. Resentment and dislike were the crops my father harvested from that sowing. Even so, my father grew up a good man, hard working and shaped by the ideals my grandfather provided. He struggled though, with the idea of what it means to be a father and to provide that example for his children. It’s a shame because I think my father would have really found solace and inspiration and fraternity of brotherhood something to sustain him latter in life. Maybe even earlier in life.

It’s funny that my desire for like-minded people in my life, people striving to educate and improve themselves, was driven by the lack of that in my own blood family. I wanted more than blood connections; I wanted that connection that propels us to be better than we think we can be. I do not think it took me from my family; in truth, close friends and family members have joined because of the work they’ve seen me do, the joy I’ve found in being with intelligent, hard-working individuals. They have joined because of my self-improvement.

The cycle, I think, repeats. The Masonic family taught me how to live, how to be in the world, how to succeed, challenged me to think, to be better than I am, and to constantly work on being a better person. They took what blood started and propelled that into new realms.

There are some people who do not think it’s right that families should join Freemasonry together. This does not make sense to me. If you want good people in your life, people who you respect, want to spend time with, learn from and also teach, why would you not want to be on a similar journey?

Not everyone is cut out to be a Freemason, however, Not every family member has the capacity or wherewithal to step onto such an intense path. We need to assess each person independently and give credit where credit is due. The people who have joined Freemasonry with me, in my life, are all fantastic people and yes, some are family members. I get the double blessing of being able to speak about all sorts of subjects and delve into deep thought with people that I truly love and who have a head start on knowing me. It’s like perfect icing on a perfect cake. We’re trying to perfect humanity; that doesn’t mean everyone except the people you grew up with. Far from it.

Not everyone who comes to Freemasonry is looking for a family. We call each other Brother for a reason though. It’s not arbitrary. Whatever you goals in joining the Craft are, you will end up with a family – one that you’ve chosen with forethought and daring. Make it your own.

“Neither man nor woman is perfect or complete without the other. Thus, no marriage or family, no ward or stake is likely to reach its full potential until husbands and wives, mothers and fathers, men and women work together in unity of purpose, respecting and relying upon each other’s strengths.” – Sheri L. Dew

The Nature of Fractals – Part I: The World Around Us

The Nature of Fractals – Part I: The World Around Us

Man continually seeks deeper understanding of the world around him. From the deepest reaches of space, to the depths of our oceans, to the smallest particle, Humanity seeks to gain ever more profound insight into this world we all experience together. However, what if the clues to gaining some insight into our existence lie right before our eyes?

As I journey through my life, it continues to amaze me how complex and yet simple our existence really is. Humans have a remarkable ability to discern patterns. Repeating patterns are a phenomenon seen throughout nature, such as the fractal. Could our ability to discern those patterns and their existence be an indication of deeper truths for this reality?

Example of a Fractal

A fractal is defined as a “natural phenomenon or a mathematical set that exhibits a repeating pattern that displays at every scale.” No matter what magnification the observer uses, the same pattern is evident, just at a larger or smaller scale depending on the magnification used. The Mandelbrot Set is one such fractal and is illustrated to the left. Mandelbrot described the fractal as “…a rough or fragmented geometric shape that can be split into parts, each of which is (at least approximately) a reduced-size copy of the whole…” (New World Encyclopedia, n.d.)

One example of a fractal is seen in a hyperbolic fractal tessellation. A tessellation is a closed, countable set of tiles arranged so that they do not overlap with a repeating pattern. They essentially form a two-dimensional shape within the Euclidian Plane. A hyperbolic fractal tessellation combines the traits of a tessellation and a fractal in a manner similar to the illustration at the right.

Fractals can be seen in our daily lives. The manner in which this article was assembled has fractal patterns – start at the highest level, build a framework (outline), select one of the subsections and write to that, inserting a sub-framework around which the words are assembled, repeat until the depth of detail desired is reached. The antennas used in cell phones are fractal in design as well. This design was selected to solve an early problem with cell phones – the large number of different frequencies each phone had to receive. The length of an antenna must be a whole fraction of the wavelength of the signal for the signal to be received. Dr. Nathan Cohen discovered in 1988 that an antenna designed as a fractal could receive multiple signals because a fractal antenna realized antennas of multiple different lengths, either matching or a whole fraction of the wavelengths of the received signals.

Fractal Pattern in Nature

Fractals are ubiquitous throughout nature as well. From a certain perspective, the fractal antenna above was successful because it replicated the concept seen in nature. Some of the more commonly seen fractals include trees and ferns. For trees, think about how the trunk is the base for multiple large branches, which form the foundation for smaller branches, so and so forth to the leaves at the end of the smallest branches. Certain sea shells also exhibit a fractal pattern. You may wonder why natural systems behave in this manner. As quoted from Dr. David Pincus:

Essentially, fractal systems have many opportunities for growth, change and re-organization. Yet they also are very robust. They maintain their coherence; they hold together well, even under tough circumstances. They are balanced in this respect, between order and chaos. They are simple, yet also very complex. This balance is often referred to as “criticality.”

And the term “self-organized” is often added because systems tend to become fractal on their own, simply by putting a lot of system components together and allowing them to exchange information. Think of a party. All you need to do is come up with enough people at the same place and time and they will start to form complex patterns of connection with one another.”  (Z.McGee, n.d.) I like to think that fractals are so complex that they are simple.

Fractal Pattern in the Brain

It turns out that the brain is fractal, both in the way it is organized physically and functionally. On the physical level, at the smallest scales are the pyramidal neuron, which is the most common neuronal structure in the brain. These form into cortical columns, consisting of numerous pyramidal neurons. Finally, the Columnar Complex consists of a number of cortical columns. All of these structures exhibit branching both into and out of the arrangement.  (The Fractal Brain Theory, n.d.)

Indeed, illustrations of the neuron and its surroundings depict a fractal type of construction. Even the way the brain works is fractal in nature. Psychologists discovered in recent years that behavior patterns and social behavior adhere to those principles. So Humanity exhibits a fractal nature from the smallest to the most gross scale, which may explain our connectivity to Nature itself. One author describes this connectedness as “broadband connectivity” and explains how that may be related to our consciousness.  (Ph.D., 2009)

 

Ancient Egyptian Religion – Part III

Ancient Egyptian Religion – Part III

This is the third post of a three part series the religion of the ancient Egyptians. Part one can be read here and Part two can be read here


Temples were a part of Egyptian history from the very beginning, and could be found in most towns at the height of Egyptian civilization. There were both mortuary temples designed to serve the spirits of deceased pharaohs, and temples dedicated to patron deities, although the difference wasn’t always clear because the concepts of divinity and kingship were so intimately intertwined.

For the most part, state-run temples were not meant to be places for the general public to worship. Instead, these temples functioned as houses for the deities, whose physical images, like statues, acted as their surrogates, and were cared for and given offerings accordingly. These services were considered necessary to sustain the deities, so that they, in turn, could maintain the universe itself. Thus, temples were fundamental to Egyptian society, and vast resources were devoted to their upkeep, which included both large estates of their own, and donations from the monarchy. Pharaohs often expanded temple estates as part of their obligation to honor the deities, which resulted in many temples growing to enormous size. However, not all deities had temples dedicated to them, as many deities who were considered important in official theology were only minimally worshipped otherwise, and many household deities were the focus of universal reverence rather than temple ritual.

The earliest Egyptian temples were small, short-lived structures, but through the Old and Middle Kingdoms they became more elaborate, and were increasingly built out of stone. By the New Kingdom, the standard temple was built along a central processional way that led through a series of courts and halls to a sanctuary, which housed a statue of the temple’s deity. Admittance to this most sacred part of the temple was restricted to the pharaoh and the highest-ranking priests. In addition to the actual temple itself, temple complexes also included workshops and storage areas, and a library where the temple’s sacred writings and everyday records were kept, and which also served as a center of learning.

In theory, it was the duty of the pharaoh to carry out temple rituals, since he was Egypt’s official representative to the deities. In reality, priests almost always carried out these ritual duties. During the Old and Middle Kingdoms, there was no separate class of priests; instead, many government officials served in this capacity for several months out of the year before returning to their secular duties. It was not until the New Kingdom that professional priesthood become widespread, although most lower-ranking priests remained part-time. Temple staff also included many people other than priests, such as musicians and chanters for temple ceremonies. Outside the temple itself were artisans and other laborers who helped supply the temple’s needs, and farmers who worked on temple estates. All were paid with portions of the temple’s income. As a result, large temples were very important centers of economic activity, sometimes employing thousands of people.

Egyptian Temple Rituals 

State religious practice included both temple rituals involved in the cult of a particular deity, and ceremonies related to divine kingship. Among the latter were coronation ceremonies and the Sed festival, a celebration and ritual renewal of the pharaoh’s strength that took place after he had held the throne for thirty years, then every three or four years after that.

Temple rituals included rites that took place all across Egypt, and rites limited to single temples or to the temples of a single deity. Some were performed daily, while others took place annually or occasionally. The most common temple ritual was the morning offering ceremony, performed daily in temples across Egypt. In it, a high-ranking priest, or sometimes the pharaoh, washed, anointed, and elaborately dressed the deity’s statue before presenting it with offerings. Once the deity had consumed the spiritual essence of the offerings, the items themselves were distributed among the priests.

There were still quite a few less frequent temple rituals, or festivals, with dozens occurring every year. These festivals often went beyond simple offerings to the deities, and could involve anything from reenactments of particular myths to the symbolic destruction of the forces of chaos. Most of these events were likely celebrated only by the priests and took place only inside the temple. However, the most important temple festivals, like the Opet Festival celebrated at Karnak, usually entailed a procession carrying the deity’s image out of the sanctuary in a model barque to visit other meaningful sites, such as the temple of a related deity. Commoners would gather to watch these processions, and sometimes received portions of the unusually large offerings given to the deities on these occasions.

Sacred Sites, Magic, and Oracles

At many sacred sites, the ancient Egyptians worshipped individual animals, which they believed to be manifestations of particular deities. These animals were chosen based on specific sacred markings, which were believed to demonstrate their suitability for the role. Some of these cult animals retained their positions for the rest of their lives, as with the Apis bull worshipped in Memphis as a manifestation of Ptah. Other animals were chosen for much shorter periods. These cults grew more popular in later times, and many temples began raising stocks of such animals from which to choose a new divine manifestation.

The ancient Egyptians used oracles to ask deities for knowledge or guidance. These oracles are known mainly from the New Kingdom onward, although it’s likely they appeared much earlier. People of all classes, including the pharaoh, asked oracles questions and, especially in the late New Kingdom, their answers could be used to settle legal disputes or inform royal decisions. The most common way to consult an oracle was to pose a question to the divine image while it was being carried in a festival procession, and then interpret an answer from the barque’s movements. Other methods included interpreting the behavior of cult animals, drawing straws, or consulting statues through which a priest apparently channeled. The means of discerning the deity’s will conferred a great deal of influence onto the priests who channeled and interpreted the deity’s message.

Popular religious practices included ceremonies marking important transitions in life, such as birth – because of the danger involved in the process – and naming, because the name was believed to be a crucial part of a person’s identity. The most important of these ceremonies were those surrounding death, because they ensured the soul’s survival beyond it. Other religious practices sought to discern the deities’ will or seek their knowledge. These included the interpreting of dreams, which could be viewed as messages from the divine realm, and the consulting of oracles. People also attempted to affect the behavior of the deities, in order to benefit themselves, through magical rituals.

The word “magic” is the closest translation of the ancient Egyptian term heka. Heka was considered a natural phenomenon, the force that created the universe and which the deities used to work their will. Ancient Egyptians believed that humans could also use heka, and magical practices were closely intertwined with religion. In fact, even the regular rituals performed in temples were considered to be magic. Individuals also frequently used magical techniques for personal goals. Although these purposes might harm others, no form of magic was considered harmful in itself. Instead, magic was seen primarily as a way for humans to prevent or overcome negative occurrences.