Tags: sticky theological issues


Akhw Offerings: To Eat, or Not to Eat?

The treatment of food and libation offerings to the blessed dead is something which has been on my mind a lot lately. My first temple didn't really treat the subject very much- I knew that the akhw were an important part of my spiritual life, but didn't really know quite what to do with them. I re-established dinner as the family meal, offering up my plate before eating and then sharing the meal with them. I also set up a portion of my shrine with offerings of model foods in their memory- just in case they didn't like what I was having for dinner. Later on I began taking classes at the House of Netjer, who had a lot more to say about ancestor reverence- which was good. My akhw veneration became a little more structured, a little more conscious- I created a separate akhw shrine for them, and began to honor them more vocally in formal rituals on certain festival days.

But then things began to get more confused. At first, a priest in the House advised me that the model foods were a bad idea because we should never offer something which we are not willing to eat. Offerings are to be consumed after ritual, of course, and real foods are always better, she said. I caught the images of my model foods in a glass of water, consumed it, and decommissioned that portion of my shrine in favor of my dinner "family meal."

That was fine, but then Hemet mentioned in another conversation that akhw offerings should not be eaten at all- they become associated with the realm of the dead, the dead keep what they take, eating them is bad heka, and all that. She said that instead of offering up my plate, I should serve my akhw (first) a very small portion of everything to be had and leave that on an altar for a period of time. Then the offerings were to be removed, and either disposed of outside or wrapped up separately before being thrown in the trash. This was a little more difficult to implement- for one thing, I got the feeling that my akhw liked our original "family meal" setup... and those who had lived through the Great Depression did not like the idea of food being wasted. I reconciled that by taking up composting- since I have no wilderness in which to dispose of my offerings, but our city does have a composting program and several of my akhw are farmers who can appreciate the value of compost. Then there were the flies which were attracted to the open platters of food and compost (which had to be kept separate from the trash)- I solved that by purchasing a covered dish and storing the compost bags in the freezer until they were full enough to drop off in a bin. And this is the way I still do things.

However, recently a local group with whom I worship and whom I particularly respect for their dedication (both to research and tradition, as well as to the gods we adore), celebrated The Beautiful Feast of the Western Valley, a.k.a. Opet. This group is not associated with the House of Netjer, and their approach to akhw offerings was much more along the lines of my original intuition: they were consumed through the same reversion of offerings which we practice with the gods. The reasoning was that our akhw were divinized spirits- and particularly that a major point of the ceremony was to identify them with the ntjr Wsyr (Ausir, Osiris). Offerings to this deity are reverted to the people as normal, and if an association with the realm of the dead were considered dangerous then surely this deity's offerings would not be consumed- and yet they were. Also, some felt that the avoidance of association with the dead came from cultures who viewed the dead as "lifeless shades," as did the Greeks, or as tormented souls as in some other religions- one would definitely not want to draw near to these kinds of existences. But as effective, justified, divinized, and living spirits- as the Egyptians viewed their dead- there would be no reason to fear close association, and indeed our dead are as much a part of our world as our gods are. Furthermore, this was a meal for which we were inviting the dead to enter [i]our[/i] world to share, rather than us traveling into the Duat to dine with them- and so it was still the food of the living which we consumed, just shared with our loved ones.

It's all good reasoning and I have to say that I'm inclined to agree- the only problem is that neither group can point to a text from the time period, or even any outside source, supporting one view over the other. I'm wondering if anyone here may have read something somewhere which could shed some more light on this question.

To eat, or not to eat?

Edited to add:
HoN recently released their latest podcast which deals specifically with this question- and they seem to be taking a different approach than the ones which I gave above (which were the most common explanations given to my questions). You can download or listen to the podcast from their website here: http://kemetthisweek.libsyn.com/index.php?post_id=344439 . I love these podcasts, and am very grateful for them. I think I'm probably still going to reinstate my food models, offering prayers at dinner, and sharing my own meal with my akhw however. Especially since this latest podcast indicates that some akhw offerings were eaten, and nothing more is being said of bad heka. ^_^ Offering my own meals allows me to present my beloved dead with much larger portions, and disposes of the physical aspect of the offering in a respectful way. Since my akhw gave me the impression that they preferred that route, this seems like the best option for me. Others' feelings may- and no doubt will- vary from person to person, and I am still looking for some reading which may indicate what was done with the offerings made to the ancestor shrines within the ancient Egyptian household (not the tombs, the ones inside people's actual homes). I welcome anyone's comments or suggestions, as this continues to be one of modern Kemet's sticky theological questions.