I’m either brave or stupid for tackling the topic of Unverified Personal Gnosis, right? It’s, like, the cornerstone of much of the Pagan and Recon communities in how they conceptualise their religious experiences. I feel like it’s got a ‘Mess With This At Your Peril’ sign hanging off it.
*shrugs, charges in anyway*
You see, I have Thoughts about it that I’m not expecting everyone to agree with, or even adopt for themselves. But I’ve been thinking about it a lot lately, particularly as I try and figure out where I am in relation to reconstructionist religions, and how our approaches differ. I’ll add that I will mostly be talking about Kemetic reconstructionism, though, for anyone playing at home, as it’s the one I have the most experience with. It may not ring true for any other flavours of reconstructionism. It probably doesn’t and nor is it meant to.
Some of this ties in with what I wrote about last week. I have this … vague notion that UPG is perhaps hindering the telling of new myths about our Gods. Our experiences have a label now that separates it from what you find in dusty history books. (No offence to dusty history books intended.) It’s akin to a scriptural adherence to canon that makes new myths not-canon, so new myths aren’t really A Thing. And they should be. We should have our own myths that talk to our own experiences with the Gods as modern people. But I digress. That was last week’s rant.
For anyone who hasn’t encountered the concept of UPG before, it’s a term that refers to personal experiences/knowledge about the Gods that isn’t backed up by canon sources. I’ve mostly encountered it with regards to offerings, such as which foods to offer to which God, that are not of the standard old historical offerings. It is also used in the context of personal experiences with the Gods that fall outside of canon, or have no source. My Celestial Twins thing is UPG in that regard, because it is not a historically attested form of Sobek and Heru-sa-Aset, nor would I ever claim it as such.
But as I’ve been path-building, I’ve done a lot of thinking about my relationship to UPG, and what I’m doing with my religion. I’m syncretic, not reconstructionist. I’m not trying to recreate what once was, I’m trying to build something based on my own experiences, and what my Gods wish me to do. Because of this, I feel like the concept of UPG has no real meaning within my own path. Everything is potentially UPG.
Let me try and word that another way. I think I have come to see that when I reflect on my experience, I’m not doing so with a historical benchmark in mind. The historical texts are an excellent guide, and it is important to know the history of the Gods you’re working with, but we live in a different world. We live in a world the ancients would not have recognised. And yet, the Gods have adapted to it. These old Gods we serve have found a way to work with us modern people, and the world we inhabit.
(Oh. ‘Holding On’ by VNV Nation is playing at the moment, incidentally. Some choice words were brought to my attention. Felt a shiver from Sobek. Felt a touch of loneliness from Him, from when no one was calling His name. See? Gods can totally adapt.)
I suppose that’s kind of why I don’t find UPG all that helpful a concept? Because, to me, it implies that the Gods are static, or at least, that these modern experiences are aberrations, and outside of canon. And I suppose they are if you use historical sources as a benchmark. Yes, the Gods have distinct personalities and attributes, because I am a hard(ish, most of the time) polytheist, so perhaps I am biased that way. But IDK. To me, it’s the difference between filing out character sheets and actually writing your characters’ stories. It’s in the experience of writing that your characters come to life, and sure, they will change and not be the way you first conceived them. But, as a writer, I know that if your characters aren’t alive, if they don’t change as the story progresses, you’re doing it wrong. /apply to Gods as appropriate.
And, yeah, most of the information we have about the Gods comes from those historical sources. And that’s a great place to start when getting to know a new God. Look up their character profile and see what They’re like before you start working with them. Totally sensible idea. I wholeheartedly endorse it. There’s nothing wrong with traditional offerings, either, if you’re short of anything fancy. I mean, I live in Australia, and it’s very dry here. Water as an offering is just as precious of a thing to give as it was to ancient Egyptians. It has value, and it has meaning to me as a modern person. But it’s not going to stop me offering non-traditional things either if asked/nudged. Aset will not be refused Her Baileys.
I think the issue I have with reconstructionism is the arbitrary choosing of which canon to follow. Which part are you calling ‘canon’? What are you rejecting? And I know that’s a ridiculously unique thing for every reconstructionist, particularly solitaries. It’s an arbitrary decision that I will admit makes it easier to do reconstruction, because you can stipulate a point in history that you’ll use as a guide to base your practices on. I do totally understand why people do that. Egyptian history spans over 3000 years. I totally understand wanting to narrow it down, and I don’t see anything wrong with that if you’re aiming for reconstruction.
I also understand why the Graeco-Roman period isn’t usually considered part of the canon. Kemetic Reconstructionists are after a ‘pure’* form of the religion, and that rightly excludes canon that comes from non-Egyptian sources. I get that, if your goal is reconstruction. *Insomuch as that description is useful in this context.
But that’s not my goal. I don’t do reconstruction. I don’t think I’ve ever done reconstructionism properly, nor had the inclination to get very serious about it. I have a different mindset, and a different approach that makes UPG, well, not very useful. I tend to see any documents relating to the Gods, no matter who wrote it, as a valid experience, and all part of the collected canon associated with that God. I feel that, if I exclude, say, the Graeco-Roman stuff, I feel like I’m arbitrarily pronouncing their experiences as somehow invalid because they don’t adhere to my idea of what’s canon. I … I just don’t feel like I have any authority to do that, nor should I.
Perhaps it’s a symptom of being devoted to a lesser known God like Sobek, where there isn’t a plethora of information available about Him and His cult, so I’ll take anything I can get that mentions Him, no matter where it comes from. I can’t afford to exclude anything lest I miss something that might offer insight into His nature. So few people work with Him that any experiences are important to me. Maybe it’s different if you work with a much more popular God, like Ra or Amun or Aset or Wesir, for example. I don’t know.
I suppose I keep coming back to what Aset told me regarding the Roman Isis, that She was a different face for a different people. Even back then, the Gods were adaptable. I also don’t think any human can conclusively say what the Gods are or aren’t, and what They can’t do. They are reaching out now to anyone who’s listening. They don’t divide us the way we divide ourselves.
Actually, I’m going to return to fandom language to explain what I think it is. You know what it feels like? It feels like Red Dwarf, or even Doctor Who. It’s not replaying the old episodes as if they were new. It’s making brand new episodes, tailored to the way the world is now, and gathering a new audience. And, sure, they won’t be the same as the old ones. But they’re still part of the same canon, yes? (Insomuch as ‘canon’ makes any sense in Whoverse terms. But you get my point, I hope.)
That’s the way I see it. I’m adding to the canon with my own experiences and lore. That’s why I don’t find UPG to be a meaningful concept for my own practice. It’s syncretic. It’s not how the ancients did it. But I’m not an ancient Egyptian. I’m a modern person, and I live in a modern world. My religion – and my Gods – adapt to that. It’s not the only way to do things, or the best way, or the right way. It’s just my way.