I struggled a lot with deciding on what I wanted to write for this topic because despite how much work I do with the dead on the astral, akhu play next to no role in my practice. I’m not overly close to my physical family, and I feel virtually no inclination to bother honoring them or venerating them in nearly any capacity. I suppose this could change once I lose more family members that are close to me, but all things considered, I don’t really think akhu is meant to be a large part of my practice.
What are akhu?
Akhu is the term that is often used to refer to blessed dead or your ancestors, which are often represented as stars (see left). Akhu is the plural form of akh. So, akhu would refer to all of your ancestors, while akh would refer to a specific ancestor. Akhu roughly translates into shining one or bright one, and this makes a lot of sense when you consider that the early Egyptians believed that their ancestors resided in the sky. Northern stars are often associated with the Duat and with the akhu, as these stars never left the sky at any point in time during the year. These were the imperishable stars, and everyone wanted to become bright and imperishable when they died. Everyone wished to become an akh.
Akhu were often venerated in antiquity because many people believed that the akhu had a better understanding of what it meant to be a human. Many people also believed that akhu could potentially petition a deity for you, and have more sway over a situation because they resided in the Duat. Alternatively, many Egyptians believed that not honoring your ancestors could result in angry akhu who would cause problems in your life. Both of these combined meant that akhu played a fairly important role in Egyptian religion in antiquity.
Do you have to honor your ancestors?
The truth of the matter is, despite many pagans and polytheists stating that ancestor veneration is a must for the modern recon-oriented practice, I’ve simply not found this to be the case. Much like how there are some people who do a lot of heka in their practice (and some who don’t), or maybe the people who are drawn to priesthood (and some who aren’t), or the folks who deal with kingship deities (while others run away from kingly deities) – I really believe that some people are meant to do things with their akhu and some aren’t. I believe that Kemetics can be somewhat niche in their practice and that that’s okay. Not everyone will be drawn to honoring their ancestors, and I don’t think your practice will really suffer if you don’t include your ancestors in the mix.
I personally focus heavily on working in the Duat as a means to help the akhu that are housed there. The Duat is the main plane where the Egyptian dead stay, and by helping to nurture the place that they live in (and the deity that oversees that plane) I feel like I am doing my share to help nourish them. I also think that by working on other parts of Kemeticism (such as leaving offerings to the gods or performing rites for the gods) we all begin to help rebuild the Duat and re-establish a firm connection between the Seen and the Unseen. This would also probably go for other ancestors whose religions are still flourishing, and so their afterlife planes flourish, too.
By helping to nourish and sustain the whole, we begin to help nourish those who are sustained by the whole.
So with that being said, if you’re not drawn to honoring your ancestors, don’t feel pressured into doing so. Focus on what you are good at and what you can do, and it’ll help build things up anyways. We don’t all need to focus on the same stuff to help build up the entire thing that is Kemeticism, or the Duat which contains many akhu within it.
How do you work with the akhu?
Honoring your akhu can be as simple or as complicated as you like. Many people will create shrines where they can focus their veneration in much the same way that people create shrines or altars for the deities in their life. Your shrine can be as complex or as simple as you need. For example, my grandmother (who is loosely Christian) keeps a whole collection of photos on her fridge to remind her of those who have gone before. To me, this could be a very simplified akhu shrine.
Most people like to include photos of their ancestors as well as items that their ancestors either possessed or liked while alive. Many people also like to keep libation bowls and candles on their shrines as well. In many ways, an akhu shrine is exactly the same as a deity shrine, the main difference being the focus of the veneration. One of the only things I’ve ever seen recommended about akhu shrines is not to include images of living people on them. So if possible, try to get images of just the people who are deceased. You don’t need to worry about getting images of every single deceased person or pet from your family on the shrine, either. Some people choose to honor specific akhu, while others try to honor any and all akhu – known and unknown.
Place your shrine wherever you feel most comfortable and wherever you’re able to perform rites for the akhu. Rites for the akhu can be as simple as leaving a libation of water at regular intervals. You could light incense for them, or leave offerings if you’d prefer. You could clean up a local graveyard if that’s more your style. It really just depends on your specific practice and situation. Some people are really involved and do things daily for their akhu while others only do things once or twice a year. There really is no right or wrong answer in this situation. Figuring out what your practice needs is what it really comes down to.
Figuring out how to set up an akhu based practice can be a little tricky at first. However, with some experimentation, it can be possible to develop a solid relationship with your ancestors.
To read other responses to this topic, check out the KRT Master List