Set, Horus, and the Law of Thelema

Set’s relationship with His brother and/or nephew, the god Horus, and how my faith is influenced by Thelemic beliefs.

 

Horus is the god who is most often contrasted with Set, but there were actually several deities called by this name in ancient Egypt. Heru-UrHaroeris, or Horus the Elder is a god of the sky whose eyes are the sun and the moon. He is a son of the sky goddess Nut, and a brother to Osiris and Set. He often conflicts with the latter, but is reconciled with Big Red in the end. Indeed, Set and Heru-Ur are both said to help Osiris ascend the ladder of heaven to join with Ra in the Pyramid Texts. But Heru-Sa-Aset or Horus the Younger, the son of Isis snd Osiris, is Set’s nephew who seeks revenge for Osiris’ death; He is the Horus who is more often referenced in popular culture today. And then there’s Ra-Horakhti, the Horus of the Two Horizons (East and West), who is a composite of Heru-Ur with the solar Creator deity, Ra.

Each of the various Horuses is firmly linked with falcons, solar imagery, and the Pharaohs, who were considered to be incarnations of the god (regardless of which “Horus” was being worshiped at the time). Each Horus also has a rocky relationship with Set and is said to either “castrate” Him or amputate His “foreleg” after Set “blinds” them in one eye. Either we are dealing with different gods sharing several synchronicities here, or we’re dealing with one god who has manifested under slightly different forms in numerous alternate timelines (sort of like how Jon Pertwee and Jodie Whittaker are both Doctor Who). Some Egyptologists and Kemetic Pagans seem to take the former of these two positions, and I believe they are likely correct. But I personally lean toward the latter position myself. Perhaps the “Horus” I have personally experienced is really a composite of several gods that answer to this name; and perhaps this composite has been influenced by Thelema as much as it has by Kemeticism.

Thelema is a religion started by Aleister Crowley, who had several powerful experiences in Cairo, Egypt in April 1904. These events were catalyzed by the Stele of Ankh-ef-en-Khonsu (otherwise known as Crowley’s “Stele of Revealing”), which was on exhibit at the Egyptian Museum of Cairo (serendipitously registered as Exhibit #666, no less). Ankh-ef-en-Khonsku’s Stele is a painted piece of wood with a vibrant image of the priest presenting gifts to Ra-Horakhti. This beautiful work caused first Rose Edith Kelly, Crowley’s wife, and then Crowley himself to receive prophetic messages from Aiwass, an angel of Horus, who revealed to them the text of Liber AL vel Legis (the Book of the Law). In this text, the goddess Nuit (Nut), the god Hadit (or Horus of Behudeti, identified with Ra as the midday sun) and the god Ra-Hoor-Khuit (Crowley’s rendering of Ra-Horakhti) together declare the beginning of a New “Aeon.”

The new Law proclaimed by the gods in Liber AL is this:

“Do what thou Wilt shall be the whole of the Law;
Love is the Law, Love under Will.”

People often assume this statement justifies doing whatever one likes, regardless of consequence; but I read it to mean something more like, “The highest priority in life is to find your true destiny and follow it; to truly love yourself (and not in a narcissistic sense) is the highest law.” Thelemites believe “Every man, woman and child is a star,” and that the way to “worship” Horus in his New Aeon is to bring out that glowing hot ball of light inside your soul and let it shine for all to see. Separating our fleeting, day-to-day desires from our everlasting True Wills can take years of reflection, and the rituals Crowley devised for Thelema are meant to facilitate this process of discretion in a powerful way.

There are some big problems with all of this, the most obvious being that Aleister Crowley was an abusive, racist, misogynist prick. He endangered many people’s lives, especially at his infamous “Abbey of Thelema” in Sicily (where he and his followers lived in unsanitary conditions, leading to at least one death), and during his ill-fated 1902 expedition of Mount Everest with Oscar Eckenstein. For a guy who liked preaching about the absolute divinity and autonomy of self, he sure was an authoritarian bully; he even enjoyed being called “the Great Beast 666” and “the Wickedest Man in the World.” He considered himself to be the spirit of Therion incarnate; and given that Therion is the archetypal evil ruler who brings ruin to his own people, I think he did a pretty good job of emulating that presence.

Why in Nut’s starry bosom would Horus (or any convergence of Horuses) choose such a horrible role model to herald the dawn of his (or their) New Aeon? I think the secret to this may lie in how the concept of Thelema resembles the Egyptian principle of Ma’at. Written in hieroglyphs as an ostrich feather, Ma’at is both a goddess and an action. As a deity, she sets the order of the seasons, the movements of the stars, and the times of birth and death for all creatures. As an action, Ma’at is doing whatever is right, whatever is just, whatever is well-balanced. To uphold Ma’at in all of one’s affairs is to procure Ma’at and good fortune for oneself, both in this world and the next. A person’s fate in the afterlife depended on how much Ma’at was in their heart (shown as a Weighing of the Heart against an ostrich feather, with the idea being that your heart must weigh the same as Ma’at). This concept is tied to both one’s personal destiny and what people call “the Golden Rule,” and I think the same is equally true of Thelema.

Thelema teaches we can live harmoniously by following our true, Higher Wills, since no True Will can supposedly cross any other in the grand scheme of things. Crowley totally sucked at exemplifying this, but it does echo the idea of doing right by yourself and others so we can all enjoy a good life and afterlife. While the Egyptians had the Pharaohs to dispense Ma’at throughout the Two Lands for them, the Horus(es) in Liber AL seem(s) to charge every single individual with the task of dispensing Ma’at everywhere. You might say Horus/Hadit/Ra-Hoor-Khuit effectively democratizes the role of Pharaoh for everyone, so that everyone can recognize themselves as a royal demigod in their own right.

I think the gods wanted everyone to see just how bad things can get if we let our individualized Pharaonic power go straight to our heads. Like the heretic king, Akhenaten, who put his obsession with one particular god (the Aten or Sun Disk) over his duty to defend all his people and their gods, Crowley prioritized his own ego over being a good role model for the Aeon. This cost him dearly in the long run, but it’s almost like he did all the wrong things so we can know what not to do by his example, without having to learn it the hard way. Crowley’s ideas have influenced not only Thelemites, but also quite a few Pagans, Qabalists, Satanists, Chaos Magicians, and rock musicians (the Beatles, David Bowie, Black Sabbath, Led Zeppelin, and many others). It seems to me that Horus (or some version thereof) truly did work through Crowley somehow, for the man certainly made a difference despite all his faults.

I have not personally interacted with any Horus(es) in my own spiritual journey, or at least not in the devotional sense of actually worshiping him/them. But his/their relationship with Set is still an important theological consideration. The dichotomy of a god of light and a god of darkness being sworn enemies is nothing new to most religions; but the idea that both sides are evenly matched, that neither side is perfect, and that both must eventually get along is uniquely Egyptian. Greek adaptations of this story rewrote the ending so that Set is either destroyed or cast out from the pantheon entirely; but with all due respect to Herodotus and Plutarch, I simply don’t accept such accounts as “canon.” The Egyptian civilization lasted roughly 3,600 years, and Set was never completely demonized until well after the first 2,800. Egypt was an occupied territory by that time, being deprived of its own government and culture; and what was remembered of the old ways had been garbled and syncretized with Greek influences. For thousands of years prior to that, the official story was always that Set and Horus are reconciled in the end.

Appropriations of Egyptian mythology (like Alex Proyas’ 2016 film, Gods of Egypt) insist on forcing Horus and Set into a Christian-based “good versus evil” dichotomy; but this runs contrary to the source material. Recall that Set doesn’t kill Osiris until after He finds out that His sister-wife, Nephthys, slept with him. According to some accounts, Nephthys truly loves Osiris and Set truly loves Isis, but neither can be with the mate of Their choice; They are paired together as an afterthought because nobody else wants to be with either of Them. Is it any wonder, then, that Nephthys eventually sleeps with Osiris to bear a child (Anubis), the one thing She wants more than anything? And is it any wonder that when He finds out, Set loses His shit and goes crazy? Mind you, Horus isn’t exactly an innocent little choir boy, either. One of the more shocking moments in the story is when Horus captures Set and prepares to kill Him, but Isis releases Big Red because He’s still her brother and she loves him. Then Horus goes apeshit and decapitates his mother in a fit of blind rage. (Thankfully Isis is healed by Thoth, who gives her a cow’s head; but still.) So I’m afraid this idea that Horus is the “Jesus” to Sutekh’s “Satan” just doesn’t wash.

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