On the Temple of Set

Some thoughts on what is probably the most well-known Setian community today.

 

The Temple of Set was founded by Michael Aquino, a Lieutenant Colonel in the U.S. military, in 1975. This was the result of a schism within the Church of Satan, in which Aquino had been a high-ranking member. Aquino had some major philosophical and administrative differences with the church’s founder, Anton LaVey, especially when it came to the theological existence of “the devil.” LaVeyan Satanists are not theistic devil worshipers, but scientific materialists who just happen to share a taste for gothic theatricality. (And why not? Goth stuff is sexy.) But in 1975, some members believed a real supernatural force was somehow attending their rituals, and Anton LaVey eventually made it clear that such views just weren’t welcome in his outfit. So Aquino left and performed a rite of his own to invoke “the devil” and figure out what to do next. He was answered not by any biblical concept of Satan, but by the Egyptian god Set, who impressed upon Aquino the concept of kheper (spelled Xeper in Temple of Set literature). Aquino then founded the Temple, which is still the most publicly well-known Setian community today.

Aquino’s Setianism requires some explanation. Reconstructing a neo-Egyptian faith was never his intent; his philosophy really begins with a refutation of LaVeyan materialism, and not with any Kemetic groundwork. Aquino was reacting to LaVey’s teaching that human beings are just organic meat machines that cease to exist upon death; he argues that human intelligence is supernatural by its very definition, and that it can indeed survive the shedding of its mortal coil. He drew more of his inspiration from Gnosticism, Neoplatonism, Thelema, and LaVey than he did from actual Egyptian sources; and while he does acknowledge Set as a real being, he has never condoned venerating Him. Temple of Set members prioritize kheper, the evolution of their souls or psyches to become gods after death. Like LaVeyan Satanists, they seem to look down upon devotional religion of any sort, even when it is directed toward Set. They claim that submission to any external deity will lead to total dissolution of the soul in the afterlife. As such, Setians of the Temple of Set are not worshipers of an Egyptian god per se (just as Church of Satan members aren’t “devil worshipers”), but something more like Gnostics, Thelemites, or Satanists who just happen to dig Set. They approach the Red Lord from a completely different playing field than Kemetic-based traditions do; our faiths are rooted in Egyptology, while theirs is rooted in Western ceremonial magic.

I am occasionally asked if I am a Temple of Set affiliate. The answer is no, and I never have been. While I have a great deal of respect for the Temple and many of their publications, I determined a long time ago (when I was 18, in fact) that this organization would not be a good fit for me personally. I identify as a Setian first and foremost because I love Set and want to honor Him as much as I can in this life. I find it annoying when “left-hand path” occultists conflate all devotional religion with “submission” and “self-denial,” since this conveniently ignores the fact that historical Setians like Aapehty and Ramses II clearly worshiped Set. I resent the suggestion that ancient Setians “didn’t understand” Set as well as we do today; that is some major white colonialist bullshit right there. And I have never trusted religious organizations that charge annual membership fees, or that possess rigid hierarchies. I understand things can’t get done without regular funding, and that all churches require good administrative leadership if they are to succeed; but I don’t think anyone should have to pay any money or kiss any hiney to learn about Big Red.

I’ve interacted with some junior Temple members (“Setians I°”) who insisted I couldn’t possibly have any authentic standing with Set without joining the Temple and learning all the secret things they keep from the public. I realize these individuals weren’t speaking for the Temple’s priesthood; but in my experience, such clique-ish attitudes tend to trickle down from the top. And if people can’t reach out to Set and be answered by Him without the Temple’s guidance, how the fuck did people worship Him in ancient Egypt? What do these people have that the Egyptians didn’t, and which the rest of us can’t find by visiting any museum or public library? It’s one thing for homegrown witch covens to keep some of their lore and rituals private, so as to prevent these things that are sacred to them from being appropriated by outsiders. It’s quite another matter for organized, incorporated, tax-exempt churches to claim they hold cosmic secrets one can only learn by paying regular dues. So even as a young Typhonian foal, I saw little point in trying to join.

In Temple of Set literature, Set is often defined as the Platonic Form or Principle of “Isolate Intelligence,” a “non-natural” alien entity that somehow modified the DNA of our primate ancestors so we would evolve to have individual psyches or souls. (It gets even more complicated from there.) This has little to do with anything the ancient Egyptians believed, and that has always been a major turn-off for me. I am a Pagan; for me, Set is a part of nature, not something that exists apart from or in opposition to it. The latter idea is a little too close to qliphothic anti-cosmicism for my interest, and this is only reinforced by all the Temple literature I’ve seen that poo-poos Paganism. Mind you, I don’t believe Set even recognizes words like “heresy” or “blasphemy”; so disagreeing with someone else’s Setian theology is not really a big deal. I can think your understanding of Set is totally batshit while still accepting you as a fellow Setian. Yet I am a proud animist and devotional polytheist, and if you tell me you think worshiping nature is ignorant or backward, I’m going to question why you align yourself with a Pagan god in the first place.

But just as I can appreciate Anton LaVey without agreeing with everything he ever said, so too can I appreciate Michael Aquino. He used his professional reputation to help see that minority religions are better represented among the U.S. Armed Forces, and he was at the front lines when it came to fighting the Satanic Panic during the 1980s. He is somewhat infamous for being so fascinated with Nazi history; but he just writes about how Nazi occult rituals were perversions of Norse polytheism (which is absolutely true, as any Heathen can verify); I’ve never seen him praise Hitler, promote fascism, deny the Holocaust, call for the extermination of Israel, or anything that Nazis actually do. Plus he’s a veteran, and some vets are just really into certain areas of military history that make people uncomfortable in polite conversation. I’m sure the man ain’t perfect, but it means a lot to me that someone like Aquino was there to raise awareness about Set back in the day. Even though I disagree with some of his opinions, anyone who has learned about Set from me should know that learning about Aquino is what catalyzed my own conversion in 1997.

Even Zeena Schreck, the youngest daughter of Anton LaVey, eventually left the Church of Satan and joined the Temple for a while; then she left that as well and started her own project, the Sethian Liberation Movement. Remember that Schreck is the first person on record to have been raised a Satanist from birth. She ditched her father’s Satanism, but she came to Set instead of coming to Jesus you might say (and she identifies as a Buddhist, too). The idea that this forgotten Egyptian god would steal people away from Satan’s “Black Pope”—including his own daughter—and inspire them to be Setians instead has always been especially meaningful to me. Schreck is not the only former Temple member to continue walking with Set in her own unique direction, either. Some have become Kemetics or devotional polytheists, and as I mentioned above, even those of us in the LV-426 Tradition have benefitted from Aquino’s work. So while I have about as much interest in the Temple as they probably do in me, I believe Big Red really did answer Aquino’s call to “the devil” on that dark night in 1975; and I’m quite grateful He did.

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A Would-Be Ombite Creation Myth

My attempt at writing a Setian Creation myth that someone living in the ancient city of Nubt (Ombos or Naqada) might have believed.

 

People are often surprised to learn that the Egyptians developed more than one Creation myth. Each priesthood had its own ideas of how the universe was created, and of who created it. They each considered the divinities they were separately assigned to worship as supreme. Hence why the priesthood of Iunu or Heliopolis taught that Atum-Ra created the universe by ejaculating it from themself, while the priesthood of Khmun or Hermopolis thought it all began with a convergence of the Ogdoad (i.e., eight primordial gods). The priests of Mennefer or Memphis believed Ptah created the world by commanding it to exist, while the priests of Waset or Thebes were convinced that Amun was the Creator. These are the four most popular schools of thought when it comes to Egyptian theology.

There were far more cosmogonies in Egyptian religion than just these four, however. There is one in which the goddess Neith gives birth to the universe, while another cites Geb (Father Earth) as the demiurge. There is even a version of events where Sobek, the crocodile god, gives birth to the sun. If you’re wondering how the Egyptians could have tolerated having so many different Creation myths, it’s because they conceptualized religion very differently than we do today. As far as they were considered, each of these stories is simultaneously true; they are simply different ways of telling the same tale. In this way, it’s almost as if the Egyptians predicated the “many worlds” interpretation of quantum mechanics.

Set’s worship goes all the way back to the predynastic era (to 3200 BCE at least, when our northern pole star was still Thuban in the constellation Draco). This means Set was worshiped in Egypt long before the Pharaohs came along. His cult appears to have originally been centered in an Upper Egyptian gold-mining town called Nubt, which is also known as Ombos in Greek and Naqada in Arabic. The people of Nubt had a temple that was dedicated to Set, and it stands to reason that this temple would have been maintained by a priesthood. It also stands to reason that the members of this sect would have had their own ideas of how Creation occurred, and that Set would have played a central role in this ideology. Unfortunately, there are no written records to indicate what such a cosmogony might have been like; the temple of Set in Nubt no longer stands, and whatever secrets it once held are now lost to us forever.

I don’t claim to know who really created the universe or how, and I actually don’t care about this question all that much. It’s enough for me to put my trust in Set, and to enjoy and give thanks for His blessings. Yet it has always bugged me a little how the only Egyptian Creation story you ever seem to hear about is the Heliopolitan cosmogony. The roles that were assigned to Set in this schematic (great-grandson to Ra; grandson to Shu and Tefnut; son to Geb and Nut; brother to Osiris, Isis, and Nephthys) were given to Him at a comparatively later point in Egyptian history, and they only reflect how He was understood by the Heliopolitans. What would a citizen of Ombos have been raised to think? What kinds of roles and relationships would Set have been given by Ombite theologians?

There is really no way to answer such questions, but the following is my attempt at imagining what an Ombite Creation myth might have looked like. Please keep in mind, however, that this is not intended to be read as any kind of dogmatic scripture. This was not supernaturally revealed to me by Set, and He has never once told me anything like, “BELIEVE THIS STORY, IT’S ABSOLUTELY TRUE, OR I WILL KILL YOU.” Big Red certainly inspired me to write this, but it is really just a thought experiment, and I hope it will either be accepted, critiqued, and/or improved upon as such.

I’ve tried to make this seem like something a person living in predynastic Nubt might have actually believed; so there are no references to Horus or Osiris, given that those stories did not develop until after the unification of Egypt. Here I refer only to divinities whom we know were worshiped or at least recognized either in Ombos itself, or in some of its closest neighbors (including the cities of Abdju/AbydosGebtu/Coptos, and Waset/Thebes). Aside from Set, His mother Nut, and the hippo goddess Taweret, this narrative also includes Sobek, Montu (the Theban sun god of war), Raet (a Theban sun goddess), Min (the Coptic god of fertility and sexuality), Aset/Isis, and Khenti-Amentiu (a jackal god of the dead who was worshiped in Abydos, and who might or might not be an earlier form of AnubisWepwawet, or Osiris). The order in which the gods are born is based on how their stars are arranged in the sky. Set, Taweret, and Sobek come first because the Great Bear, Draco, and the Little Dipper are in the celestial north; Montu and Raet are next since the Zodiac is beneath these constellations; and Min and Aset follow since Orion and Sirius are beneath the Zodiac. With all that being said, I now humbly submit the following.

Before the Dawn of Time, there was nothing else but the goddess Nut. She was alone, and her infinite black body was not yet tattooed with stars. Everything which now exists was still one with Nut, and since there was nothing else with which she could be compared, everything was nothing. All was Nut, and Nut was all.

 

But then a powerful hunger awoke within the body of the goddess, a craving for existence rather than nothingness. So powerful was this force that it grew and grew within Nut until it could no longer be contained. This new force then exploded from Nut’s side, cleaving her in twain and becoming the Red God, Set. In this way, the Dawn of Time began not with the first dawn (as the priests of Atum teach their children in Iunu), but with the first storm.

 

One part of Nut descended and became her brother Geb, upon whose body we now live. The other half remained above and became Mother Sky. Set was still attached to Nut by His navel string, but He cut the string with His iron phallus and was freed. He then roamed the body of Geb, spreading desolation and dust wherever He went. His navel string did not fade away, but became angry and attacked the Red God. Thus did the evil thing become Apep, the Chaos Serpent, which seeks to return all of Nut’s children to her womb and make her miscarry for all time.

 

Apep eventually attacked Set and castrated Him with its horrible teeth. The Red God roared in pain, but would not be defeated; He merely retrieved His iron phallus, forged it into a massive Scimitar, and hacked the Serpent into pieces. Yet did the monster regenerate itself, with all of its pieces coming back together save one. That one remaining piece grew to become the goddess Taweret, who fell in love with Set and joined Him in battling the Serpent.

 

Taweret also restrained Set by chaining His Scimitar to the navel of Nut. In this way, Taweret established Ma’at and made it possible for life to develop upon the body of Geb. She and Set then became the Great Hippopotamus (Draco) and the Foreleg (Ursa Major) in the northern sky. Such is how the Red God was tamed to become the defender of our world. His war against Apep will rage for all time; were it not for Set’s grace, the Serpent would swallow us all.

 

Some time later, Taweret made Herself pregnant and gave birth to Sobek, who appears as the Great Crocodile (Ursa Minor) in heaven. Sobek descended to Geb and created Iteru (the Nile), the first river; then he laid a gigantic egg in what is now Waset. When this egg hatched, the sun deities Montu and Raet came forth. Then, in what is now Gebtu, Montu and Raet brought forth Min and Aset. Together, these four divinities created all life upon the body of Geb. Finally, Min and Aset gave birth to Khenti-Amentiu, who guides the dead to safety in Duat.

 

The people of Waset praise Montu as the Creator, and the people of Gebtu praise Min. But we who live here in Nubt know that Set is the One who truly started it all. Our humble little town is where He first stepped foot on Geb. He has blessed our people with the gold that we mine from the hills, as well as with the surrounding desert that preserves our Blessed Dead. It is our sacred duty to offer food, drink, and pottery to the Red God at the House we have built for Him here; let those in other towns appease the other Netjeru.

 

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Khepesh: The Iron of Set

Explaining Set’s connections to the Big Dipper, and why they are important.

 

In Egyptian mythology, Khepesh (“The Thigh”) is the Iron of Set. This powerful force was once a part of Set Himself, but it was removed from Him by Horus during Their war for the throne of civilization. It is sometimes described as being Set’s “bone,” “foreleg,” “semen,” or even His “testicles” (which means its removal is sometimes described as a “castration”). This Iron is what enabled Set to kill Osiris, and it was returned to Him once He was “tamed” enough to be reconciled with the rest of the gods. Set now uses Khepesh to defend Ra from the Chaos Serpent, and its physical counterparts in nature include the asterism we know today as the Big Dipper, as well as the chemical element Fe (iron).

Khepesh is often contrasted with Wedjat, the Eye of Horus (or “All-Seeing Eye”), which Set removed from Horus during Their fight. We use our eyes to see things, which is why Wedjat is associated with light, knowledge, and order; it represents “shedding light” on the unknown and making it known. Khepesh, on the other hand, is linked to Set’s libido; it represents the unknown’s ability to intrude upon the known and force it to adapt. Despite this disruption, Khepesh is an altogether different kind of “chaos” from that of the Chaos Serpent, for it doesn’t threaten to destroy everything in Creation; it simply destroys certain things to make room for others. Hence why it is the perfect weapon against the Serpent, and in this respect it is often portrayed in Egyptian art as a lance or spear that Set carries into battle.

The Apotropaic Waltz

The Iron of Set is comparable to other monster-slaying weapons in mythology, such as Mjollnir (Thor’s hammer). Both are associated with red-haired storm deities; both must remain externalized from their users (for even Thor must wear gloves while handling Mjollnir); and both have strong phallic connotations (as when Mjollnir is placed on the bride’s lap during Nordic wedding ceremonies). We may further compare Khepesh to Thurisaz, the third rune in the Elder Futhark, which represents how the destructive powers of nature can be used for protective purposes. The word Khepesh was additionally used for a sword the ancient Egyptians carried in battle, and which is shaped like the Big Dipper.

“An

An Egyptian khepesh sickle-sword.

Khepesh was “tethered” to the star Polaris (our planet’s current north pole star) by the goddess Taweret to keep it as far away from Osiris as possible. It’s also kept there as a kind of “cosmic scarecrow” to prevent the Chaos Serpent from attacking our world through the northern sky. In the Greek magical papyri, Set is said to live somewhere “behind” the Big Dipper, in a “Secret Place” that none of the other gods can reach. This realm has been linked with the Hermetic concept of Daath on the Tree of Life, and it is sometimes called “the Mauve Zone” or “the Desert of Set.” That last term is taken from how the Egyptians considered their country to be the very pinnacle of human civilization. The deserts surrounding Egypt (called Deshret or “the Red Lands”) were viewed as protecting it from “the world outside”; hence this notion that Set roams the chaotic maelstrom “out there” to keep the created world safe “in here.”

From an animist perspective, everything about the Big Dipper may be seen as an astral reflection of Khepesh. Bearing this principle in mind, we can make the following observations about Set’s Iron:

  • Most of the Egyptian gods are linked to stellar objects that “fall beneath” and “rise above” the horizon, including the Sun, the Moon, Sirius, and constellations like Orion. These deities are reported to “die” and “rise again” (or to accompany other dying-and-rising gods through their transitions). But the Big Dipper is circumpolar and never sets, representing Set’s inability to ever die. While the other gods experience a cyclical kind of immortality, Set’s is continuous and linear. Khepesh is what gives Him the immense strength He needs to be truly deathless.
  • Since the Dipper points north, it makes a perfect “cosmic compass” and has been used as such for centuries. For the ancient desert peoples who worshiped Him, it must have seemed like Set was faithfully guiding them through the night whenever they were lost. This indicates that Khepesh, no matter how destructive or frightening it might be, is actually a force for good in this world, as well as its last line of defense from the Serpent and its qliphoth.
  • The Dipper rotates counterclockwise (to the left), and leftness has always been linked with asymmetry, inversion, and reversal (whether social, political, or spiritual). So Khepesh is tied to Set’s anti-establishment sensibilities, which explains His popularity among left-hand path occultists.
  • The Dipper forms a giant swastika in the northern sky. This is actually a symbol for prosperity and good luck in many cultures; it doesn’t “belong” to National Socialists anymore than crosses “belong” to the Ku Klux Klan. But that doesn’t change the fact that most Westerners react badly to the swastika for reasons that are completely understandable. This relates to Set’s reputation as a so-called “evil” god. Just as He really represents something good but is mistaken for being “evil” by outsiders, so too does the swastika represent something good in religions like Hinduism and Buddhism, despite being tied to Nazism in the West. Part of being Setian, in my opinion, involves being able to understand this kind of nuance, which is not easy for most people to do.

“The

That Khepesh is linked to iron (Fe) is also interesting, given that this chemical element has traditionally been used to ward off malevolent daemons, faeries, witches, and the Evil Eye. Prison bars were once made from iron to restrict any negative energy that might be emanating from the most dangerous prisoners. Even today, Bedouins still believe that a person who fights with a sword forged from meteoric iron will win any battle. It’s a little spooky that the Greek philosopher Pythagoras claimed that Typhon’s number is 56, considering that the atomic weight of iron is 55.845 (which rounds up to 56). Nor is it a coincidence that iron should be linked to the color red, the planet Mars, or the Qabalic sphere of Geburah.

In the Ceremony of the Opening of the Mouth, Khepesh was invoked into an adze or chisel that had been forged from meteoric iron, and which was shaped to resemble the Big Dipper. This adze was then pressed against the mouth of a mummy or statue while the priests recited spells invoking “the iron that comes forth from Set.” Doing this effectively transformed the inanimate object into a living conduit for a deity or the ghost of a deceased loved one. The principle behind such ritual magic is more or less identical to that of Catholic transubstantiation. Prior to Mass, the communal bread and wine are merely foodstuffs; they don’t become the mystical body and blood of Christ until all the magic words have been properly recited. In the same way, an Egyptian cult image started its existence as merely an image; it would not “come alive” with the spirit of the god or ghost it was meant to represent until after its mouth had been symbolically “opened.” Interesting that Khepesh, the same power Set uses to stomp Osiris and smite the Serpent, can also be used to create magical interfaces between this world and the next.

“Horus

Horus “opening the mouth” of a mummy.

Khepesh is additionally connected to the was scepter, which bears the head and forked tail of the Sha animal. The name was (which rhymes with “Oz”) means “power” or “dominion,” and the scepter represents the royal power to sublimate chaos. Using the Sha in this symbolism is similar to the use of stone gargoyles in Christian churches. The gargoyles represent dark, chaotic forces that have been “domesticated” and which now protect us from other forces that are even worse. This reminds me of the parallels between Set and Tokyo’s favorite giant monster, Godzilla. Both begin innocently enough, but later become extremely dangerous beings that threaten to destroy the whole world. Then both are eventually “reigned in” to defend the Earth from evil hell monsters like Apep and King Ghidorah.

“The

As a final thought, Khepesh is similar in concept to what Christians call “the Blood of Christ.” The latter is supposedly a real mystical substance that washes away all sin from a person’s heart. Likewise, Set’s Iron “straightens the spines” and “opens the mouths” of both the gods and the dead. Both objects are formerly part of a deity’s body, and both can be magically “drawn down” by worshipers into physical devices. Just as the sacramental bread and wine at a Catholic mass can become the actual body and blood of Christ, so too can people and objects with Typhonian properties be “filled” with the force of Khepesh.

References

Alford, A. F. (2003). Pyramid of secrets: The architecture of the Great Pyramid reconsidered in the light of creational mythology. Walsall, England: Eridu Books.

Almond, J., & Seddon, K. (2004). Egyptian Paganism for beginners. St. Paul, MN: Llewellyn.

Assante, M. K., & Mazama, A. (Eds.) (2009). Encyclopedia of African religion, volume 1. Thousand Oaks, CA: SAGE Publications, Inc.

Assman, J. (2002). The mind of Egypt: History and meaning in the time of the Pharaohs. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Budge, E. A. W. (1934). From fetish to God in ancient Egypt. New York, NY: Dover.

Budge, E. A. W. (1904). The Gods of the Egyptians: Or, studies in Egyptian mythology (volume 2). London, UK: Methuen & Co.

Eliade, M. (1978). The forge and the crucible: The origins and structure of alchemy. Chicago, IL: The University of Chicago Press.

Friedman, D. M. (2001). Mind of its own: A cultural history of the penis. New York, NY: The Free Press.

Guiley, R. (2006). The encyclopedia of magic and alchemy. New York, NY: Facts on File, Inc.

Isler, M. (2001). Sticks, stones and shadows: Building the Egyptian pyramids. Norman, OK: University of Oklahoma Press.

Penprase, B. E. (2011). The power of stars: How celestial observations have shaped civilization. New York, NY: Springer.

Pinch, G. (2002). Egyptian mythology: A guide to the Gods, Goddesses, and traditions of ancient Egypt. New York, NY: Oxford University Press.

Roberts, M. J. (1994). Norse Gods and heroes. New York, NY: Friedman Group.

Seeds, M. A., & Backman, D. E. (2011). The solar system. Boston, MA: Brooks/Cole.

Simon. (2006). The gates of the Necronomicon. New York, NY: Avon.

Teeter, E. (2011). Religion and ritual in ancient Egypt. New York, NY: Cambridge University Press.

Te Velde, H. (1977). Seth, God of confusion: A study of His role in Egyptian mythology and religion. Leiden: E. J. Brill.

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Too Many Mummies!

Why I enjoy certain “killer mummy” movies, and why I usually roll my eyes at the rest of this subgenre.

 

If there’s one thing I’ve always enjoyed doing since birth, it’s watching monster movies. It all started with the old black-and-white ones with guys like Boris Karloff, Bela Lugosi, and Lon Chaney, Jr. When I was seven or eight years old, there was a local UHF TV station that used to broadcast many of these flicks on weekend afternoons or late at night. This is how I remember seeing things like King Kong (1933), Godzilla (1954), and Them! (1954) for the very first time. Most of these movies didn’t scare me that much (though I remember being absolutely traumatized by The Thing From Another World), but I loved them anyway, especially the Universal monster movies. And naturally, Karl Freund’s The Mummy (1932) is the one selection from that particular canon that made the greatest impression on me.

An ancient Egyptian priest named Imhotep (played by Boris Karloff) has a forbidden crush on the princess Ankh-es-en-Amon, who is a virgin priestess of the goddess Isis. When Ankh-es-en-Amon dies an untimely death, Imhotep steals the legendary Scroll of Thoth to resurrect her corpse. The Pharaoh’s guards apprehend him and rip out his tongue; then they bury him alive, all as punishment for his blasphemy. To add insult to injury, Imhotep’s fellow priests scratch out all the hieroglyphic spells inside his coffin that are meant to procure a safe journey to the Otherworld for its occupant, thereby condemning his soul. Thousands of years later, some European archaeologists dig up Imhotep’s tomb and accidentally resurrect him with the Scroll of Thoth. One of them sees the old boy walking around, and the poor dumbass goes stark raving mad. Then the mummy disappears, snatching the Scroll on its way out.

Years later, Sir Joseph Whemple (the European who hasn’t gone crackers) returns to Egypt with his son Frank to launch a new expedition. That’s when a guy calling himself “Ardath Bey” (an anagram of “Death by Ra”) shows up. Bey appears to be the oldest (and dustiest) Shriner walking the Middle East, and he walks around like he’s got a Louisville slugger rammed up between his ass cheeks. He also has an incredible knack for knowing exactly where the archaeologists should dig to find more treasure. Thanks to Bey, the archaeologists discover the tomb of Princess Ankh-es-en-Amon—and that’s when a European lady named Helen Grosvenor (played by Zita Johann) starts sleepwalking through traffic in the middle of Cairo. Thinking Helen might be the reincarnation of his old lady (literally), Imhotep—er, I mean Ardath Bey—decides to put the wammy on her so he can kill her, mummify her, and resurrect her corpse.

Of course, Helen doesn’t exactly relish the thought of becoming a drooling, undead trophy wife. So Imhotep does what any sensible star-crossed sorcerer would do; he kidnaps her, hypnotizes her with his magic, and forces her to go along with what he wants. But just before he’s able to claim his final victory, Helen feels a sudden inspiration to pray to Isis, whose statue springs to life and electrocutes Imhotep with magic lightning. At that point, the world’s oldest (and dustiest) Shriner reverts back to the walking, talking mummy he really is, and he promptly disintegrates into a pile of bones. Then Helen goes home and presumably marries her other suitor, the archaeologist’s son. (Actually, Helen simply exchanges one kind of “zombification” for another. Considering how Frank treats her while he’s keeping her safe from Imhotep, it seems like she’s doomed to become someone’s zombie trophy wife sooner or later.)

The Mummy was inspired by on the opening of Pharaoh Tutankhamen’s tomb in 1922 by the archaeologist, Howard Carter. There was a lot of media hype back then about Carter and his colleagues bringing down a so-called “Curse of the Pharaohs” for committing this “sacrilege.” Everyone who had a hand in opening the tomb was supposed to die a strange and mysterious death. (Even Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, the famous creator of Sherlock Holmes, believed there was some kind of truth to this curse.) But it actually would have been rude of Tutankhamen to unleash such a curse, given that Carter’s the one who gave the poor kid his biggest break. Tutankhamen was hardly an afterthought in Egyptian history during his woefully short life; it wasn’t until Carter found him that he became the most famous Pharaoh of all. Even people who’ve never read a single Egyptology book know who “King Tut” is, and it’s all thanks to Carter. I’ve always figured Tutankhamen would be mighty grateful to Carter for this.

And did you know there was actually a real, historical Imhotep? He wasn’t anything like Boris Karloff’s character; he is actually the oldest known physician in history. He wrote one of the earliest medical treatises that offered purely scientific (and not magical) treatments for illnesses (predating the Greek physician Hippocrates by over 2,000 years). He was also the master architect and engineer who designed the Pyramid of Djoser (otherwise known as “the Step Pyramid”). Far from being cursed for any blasphemy, Imhotep was something more like a saint who had achieved great enlightenment and holiness during his earthly life, and who could intercede as a spirit on behalf of the living. Such was the real Imhotep’s popularity that he eventually gained his own religious following and was worshiped as the “Son of Thoth” (the god of wisdom, who was Imhotep’s tutelary deity). My guess is, the makers of The Mummy wanted an authentically Egyptian-sounding name for their film’s antagonist, and they most likely chose “Imhotep” without knowing anything about the historical figure to whom it belongs.

The thing that really sets The Mummy apart from other films of the period is the way in which its titular monster is defeated. Most gothic horror movie monsters—vampires, werewolves, Frankenstein monsters—are easily defeated with Christian religious symbols, or with purely practical weapons like fire. Imhotep is impervious to all of these things, and it is neither Jesus Christ nor Professor Van Helsing (nor even The Mummy‘s own perpetually dumbstruck “hero”) who saves Helen at the end. Her savior is a goddess who’s assumed by the (male) archaeologists in the film to have been a mere superstition, but who’s shown to be real and benevolent enough to answer an innocent woman’s desperate plea. The Mummy is pro-Pagan in its insistence that the ancient Egyptian religion is true and continues to have power and currency today. The fact that most people no longer believe in the Egyptian gods has absolutely nothing to do with it, and all of the characters are forced to accept these facts by the end of the film.

There’s only one other character who understands these things from the start, and that’s Dr. Mueller (played by Edward Van Sloan). Mueller is Helen’s psychiatrist, but he’s also an esotericist who happens to put his faith in the Egyptian religion. He’s the one who insists that everyone should be wearing an amulet of Isis for protection (and he turns out to be right). He also warns the archaeologists that they shouldn’t be meddling around with the Scroll of Thoth, and that they should just torch it in a fireplace somewhere. Not only does he seem to know that using the Scroll is a bad idea, but he specifically uses the word “sacrilege.” I’m sure the filmmakers never put this much thought into it, but I bet Mueller is a member of something like the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn or the Ordo Templi Orientis—some European occult initiatory order that claims to be older than it really is, and which is full of bored social elites who claim to know more about Egypt than they really do. Except in this case, Mueller happens to know just enough to help keep some of the other characters alive, which is curiously pro-Egyptian for a movie from this era.

Of course, the film isn’t without criticism. One complaint I often hear is that it’s basically the same movie as 1931’s Dracula, but with Egyptian rather than Transylvanian window dressings. This is definitely true; the idea of an undead immortal man lusting after a mortal woman also appears in Dracula, and Dr. Mueller and Frank Whemple are both played by actors who also appeared in nearly identical roles in the Lugosi film (as Professor Van Helsing and Jonathan Harker, respectively). The opening title sequence even uses the exact same music that was used for Dracula (the “Swan Theme” from the second act of Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake). But despite all of this, I feel The Mummy is superior to Dracula in almost every way. It has the benefit of being made after Hollywood had a chance to learn from making “talkies” for a while. Dracula has always seemed very stilted and boring to me, and I think it’s because they were only just starting to film with sound when it was being made. It’s also more faithful to Hamilton Deane’s 1924 stage play than it is the original Bram Stoker novel, which means it’s a fucking terrible adaptation. At least The Mummy doesn’t claim to be based on a book and then do a fantastically shitty job of adapting it.

The Mummy was followed in the 1940s by a string of so-called “sequels” (starting with The Mummy’s Hand in 1940) that have nothing to do with the original film’s characters or plot. They’re also not nearly as intelligent and much more racist. They follow a mummy named Kharis, who’s less of a savvy sorcerer like Imhotep and more of a stumbling, demented death machine. He’s sent by the ancient priesthood of Karnak to kill some archaeologists for desecrating the tomb of a princess, and he’s controlled by the priests with (ahem) petrified tea leaves. While the 1932 original depicts Egyptian magic as a morally neutral power that can be used to help or hinder, the 1940s films treat it as a bizarre and degenerative cult that can only bring savage violence and death. (Most insultingly, the priests of Karnak always end up falling in lust with some white woman and trying to rape her, which always leads to the priest’s demise.)

Thankfully, the story of Kharis was revisited in more thought-provoking terms in the 1959 remake by Hammer Studios, called simply The Mummy and starring Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee. Thanks partly to a great script by Jimmy Sangster and a terrific performance by George Pastell as Mehemet Bey (the priest of Karnak in this version), Hammer’s The Mummy casts its Egyptian characters in a somewhat more sympathetic light. It still views its own subject matter through a racist and colonialist lens, but at least Mehemet Bey is given a chance to articulate his position to the white protagonists, and Pastell really sells it. I can totally see how the systemic exploitation of his culture and religion would radicalize him to kill in the name of Karnak, regardless of the fact that Karnak is actually a city in Egypt and not a god. (I actually enjoy this flaw in the film, because it means none of the violence is being committed in the name of any deity that’s worshiped in any real life religion.) It’s also nice to see a version of the story that doesn’t have the priest of Karnak getting all rapey with the heroine and sabotaging himself in the end.

The Hammer Mummy is a close contender for “Greatest Movie Called The Mummy Ever Made” in my Setian scriptural canon, but the Universal original wins this category for the following reasons:

  • The Universal original is pro-Egyptian and has the good guys getting their asses saved by an Egyptian goddess; the Hammer version, despite having a sympathetic villain, still has an uncomfortably xenophobic message of “Anything that isn’t White Anglo-Saxon Protestantism is evil black magic and devil worship.”
  • While Mehemet Bey keeps his cool right up until the end, the Hammer version still has someone getting rapey with the female lead and thereby foiling Mehemet’s plot; in this case, it’s his own damn mummy Kharis (played by Christopher Lee), who I guess just wants to prove you’re never too old to sow your oats.

There’s been a truckload of other “killer mummy” movies since the Hammer Mummy, but most of them just repeat the same old premise from the Karloff original: some dead guy from Egypt rises from the grave with the worst case of morning wood ever, and he stops at nothing to claim the current reincarnation of his ancient sweetheart. Considering the complexity of Egyptian mythology and its huge cast of characters, it’s never made sense to me why Hollywood keeps circling back to this particular trope. There are so many other ideas from Egypt that could be adapted into much more interesting stories, such as the belief in kas (invisible doppelgangers that are supposed to follow us around throughout our lives), or the story of the Destruction of Humankind (in which humans are almost completely wiped out by the lion goddess Sekhmet), or the idea that pictures and drawings are actually windows into alternate universes. There’s more than enough material in Egyptian literature to inform several long-lasting movie franchises, but audiences just want to see scantily-clad women being fondled by dudes wrapped in Charmin I guess.

Okay, so the 1999 version of The Mummy handles this trope a little differently. Yes, the evil mummy wants to bring back his dead lover; but at least here, the dead lover and the living heroine are two different characters. (The mummy still has to kill the heroine to bring back his ancient lover, though, so I guess it’s not that different after all. Also, the heroine turns out to be the reincarnation of another Egyptian princess in the 2001 sequel, The Mummy Returns. Doesn’t anyone ever get tired of writing this crap?) But one thing that does work to the 1999 film’s favor is the fact that it frames itself not as a gothic horror movie, but as an epic adventure yarn. It bears much greater resemblance to the Indiana Jones movies than to either of its own titular predecessors. The performances from Brendan Frasier, Rachel Weisz, and Arnold Vosloo are also quite enjoyable, and I like that the film has its heroes using Egyptian mysticism to defeat the villain. (Reading a spell from the Book of Amun-Ra is not quite as impressive as having a goddess show up to personally rescue you from the monster, but I digress.) If you can look past the horrible computer graphics that are in this movie (and mind you, this is a 1990s movie, so its digital effects are craptastic in that special way that only 1990s CG could give us), you could do a whole lot worse.

Which brings us to the latest Mummy reboot, the 2017 version starring Tom Cruise. Sweet Set O Mighty, I don’t even know where to begin with this one. Okay, so we have an Egyptian sorceress who’s mummified alive for trying to take the Pharaoh’s throne. We have Tom Cruise digging up her coffin in contemporary Iraq (?) after an airstrike. We have Tom’s pal getting killed and showing up as a ghost that only Tom can see (probably because he got confused and thought they were making An American Werewolf in London). And we have Russel Crowe showing up as Dr. Jekyll/Mr. Hyde (yes, from the Robert Louis Stevenson novel), who has somehow become the leader of a secret society that knows everything there is to know about the mummy. I appreciate that they made this mummy a chick (and I won’t lie, Sofia Boutella looks fucking hot wrapped in Charmin like that), and I’m especially grateful that the “ancient lovers” theme was completely removed. Yet the film makes other unforgivable mistakes, and its absolute worst offense is the sheer number of aimless plot points that are clearly meant to be resolved in future movies. It’s one thing to do this when you have a clear vision of how everything’s going to tie together in the end; but the 2017 Mummy is not a finished product that can stand or be judged on its own merits. It amounts to little more than a 110-minute long preview of coming attractions (which we will never get to see).

But that isn’t what upsets me most about the 2017 Mummy. I can forgive movies for all kinds of cinematic sins, but I find it difficult to watch anything in which Set is used as a stand-in for the Christian devil. The mummy Ahmanet has acquired her supernatural powers as a result of making a “pact” with Set, and pretty much everything she does in the film is to serve Him. Naturally, this means Set is “evil” and wants to destroy the world. Would it kill Hollywood filmmakers to make a movie for once where Set isn’t written like He’s some two-dimensional cartoon villain? Even better, the film ends with Tom Cruise killing the mummy, inheriting her powers from her pact with Set, and becoming a superhero. If you don’t understand why I would be bothered by this, imagine for a moment that someone has made a film in which Jesus comes back to start a global holocaust, only to be defeated by Val Kilmer, who then promptly uses his new Jesus powers to become “Captain Nazareth.” Sounds pretty stupid, right?

Mummy

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