It’s the End of Days As We Know It (And I Feel Fine)

How a really terrible Arnold Schwarzenegger movie influenced my spirituality and art.

Previously I discussed the television series Millennium, a brilliant show that made a huge impression on me as a Setian teenager back in the 1990s. There was another apocalyptic-themed horror romp from that era which made a huge impression on me too, but it was not nearly so remarkable. In fact, it’s really a terrible production most any way you look at it. But in those crazy days just before January 1, 2000, when lots of people were kinda worried the world might actually fall apart on New Year’s Eve, there was one theatrical film that dared to exploit all that juicy endtime paranoia. And shitty as it was, I’d be remiss if I didn’t address some of the influence it has had on me.

That’s right, I’m talking about the one and only End of Days (1999), that magnificent shit show in which Arnold Schwarzenegger squares off against Satan himself, who’s prowling the streets of New York City in Gabriel Byrne’s body. Oh gods, where do I even START with this fucker?

Okay, so the story begins with a bunch of clergymen at the Vatican freaking out about a comet and some prophecy about a “satanic” child being born somewhere. Then, in New York City, Udo Kier kills a snake and baptizes a newborn baby girl with its blood. The girl just happens to be born with a birthmark that resembles some kind of glyph. Then, confusingly, we fast forward to December 1999, when a semi-invisible creature rises up from the sewers of NYC to possess some random business dude (Gabriel Byrne) so it can grab some poor lady by her bosom, then blow up a restaurant. Then we meet Jericho (Arnold Schwarzenegger), some kind of private security guy whose family was murdered and who is just one stone’s throw away from killing himself. Jericho is hired to protect the dude who’s possessed by Satan, which comes in handy when a crazy Catholic priest with no tongue tries to assassinate the guy.

Jericho does his job, but he doesn’t like the way things add up. So he decides to investigate the priest, which somehow leads him to track down Christine (Robin Tunney), the woman who was born and baptized at the beginning of the movie by Satanists. This is convenient too, because it turns out Satan is searching for her. Apparently, Christine was bred to be his bride at the End of Days. If the devil succeeds in raping Christine at the stroke of midnight on New Year’s Eve, it will somehow allow him to take over the world and burn the whole thing down to a crisp. This is all explained to us by another Catholic priest (played by Rod Steiger) who leads an underground movement to find Christine and keep her safe. But at the same time, a rival sect within the Church has sent an army of assassins to kill Christine before Satan can get to her. Any way you slice it, Arnold—er, I mean Jericho—feels compelled to get Christine the hell away from everyone. The whole thing leads to a midnight black mass in the sewers, a subway chase scene, and then a final confrontation in some random church. Satan possesses Jericho at the last minute before midnight, and all seems lost; but Jericho resists the devil’s will to rape Christine and commits suicide instead, thereby saving the poor lady and canceling the apocalypse.

(Are you keeping up with all of this? Fascinating how much plot they managed to cram into this movie, especially considering how shallow and empty the film actually is!)

End of Days clearly wasn’t made by dogmatic Christians; otherwise the writers would have adapted the book of Revelation much more faithfully (pun intended). It is the pinnacle of absurdity when Rod Steiger rants about how Jericho should “read the Bible” to understand what’s going on, given the absence of any real biblical content in this story. The fact that Steiger comes across as angry and scolding while he does this is definitely a turn-off, too. The film presents itself as trying to “scare audiences back into church,” but it doesn’t care enough to get any of its own bullshit right! Instead of actually adapting the book of Revelation or anything like that, this is basically just a Terminator movie that swaps the supernatural for science fiction.

Consider this film’s version of the devil, for instance. Other cinematic adversaries of the time were quite a bit more interesting, such as Al Pacino’s take on Lucifer in The Devil’s Advocate (1997) and Denzel Washington’s face-off against Azazel in Fallen (1998). Gabriel Byrne’s devil, however, is little more than a two-dimensional slasher movie villain who stalks and slashes people. This is quite a shame too, because Byrne is a magnificent actor and could have really owned this role if he had been allowed to do so. As it is, he just stands there, says a few cliches, and gets shot at. I suspect the director, Peter Hyams, is the real reason why Byrne’s performance in End of Days seems so forgettable. Maybe it’s just because I’m a Setian and I actually know the complex history of where “the devil” came from; but I personally prefer my satanic horror movies to be a little more innovative, thought-provoking, and weird. (Just wait for my NEXT sermon, in which I will give a most excellent example of what I mean!)

The magnificent Gabriel Byrne playing one of history’s most forgettable devils.

I also have two very serious objections to the plot. First, I don’t appreciate the fact that this entire story hinges on the threat of Christine being raped. And yes, I’m aware that she says, “I’m scared I might WANT to sleep with him” at some point; but I don’t care. Being hypnotized into having sex with someone STILL COUNTS AS RAPE. (In fact, there are other lady characters in the film who are raped in this manner.) And since there is no mention of the devil actually raping anybody in the book of Revelation, a decision was clearly made to capitalize on Satanic Panic hysteria here. I not only find this distasteful; I find it disgusting. They could have just as easily written it so that Satan has to eat a ham sandwich on New Year’s Eve to start the apocalypse (which would have been much more entertaining, actually!)

My second objection relates to the main character, Jericho. Let’s be honest here: Arnold Schwarzenegger isn’t exactly the greatest actor who ever lived. But his acting ability isn’t a problem for me; I enjoy him in many of his films just for his charisma. No, the problem here is that Jericho is written as a suicidal person who eventually HAS to take his own life (and at the Christian god’s behest, in fact). He has no character arc to speak of; he never grows or learns anything, he just stays exactly the same all the way through. So when Jericho has to kill himself at the end, it’s not like he says, “But wait, I’m not suicidal anymore!” or anything like that. No, far be it from End of Days to offer us any sort of character development. It’s more like Jericho has been waiting to kill himself this whole time, and now he can finally get it over with. The message I take from this is incredibly ugly, toxic, and mean-spirited. It feels like End of Days is saying, “Suicidal feelings are GOOD because they make men MANLY, and they make us better suited to serve God’s will!” And that is not a message I can ever agree with.

Dude, I fuckin’ LOVE this music.

By now, you must be wondering how on earth End of Days could have influenced my spirituality or my art so much, given that I am so hyper-critical of this film. Well, the answer lies partly in my criticisms, which I will explain further in just a moment; but it also partly lies in the soundtrack. And no, I am not referring to the compilation album with the Rob Zombie and Guns N’ Roses songs. I’m talking about the instrumental movie score by John Debney, which features a lovely fusion of choral, orchestral, and electronic music. As soon as I heard this stuff while watching the film at the theater, I knew I had to purchase it on CD. I fucking hated End of Days as a movie, but the Debney score continues to be one of my all-time favorite records, even today. I listened to it every day for a while in high school, and it inspired me to try and come up with my own crazy apocalypse movie. I tried writing this as a script or a novel for years, but I could never quite hammer out the details in a way that satisfied me. All I knew was that I wanted it to be a Setian take on Armageddon, rather than a Christian (or quasi-Christian) one. And now, twenty full years later, I have finally actualized this dark dream in a form that others can enjoy: the album, His Nocturnal Majesty (2020).

But while I despised End of Days upon my initial viewing, something about the movie kept making me want to re-watch it over the years. I still think it is an egregiously stupid movie, and I would never recommend it to anyone. But at least now I can appreciate the film for a few reasons. I do rather enjoy the action sequences; Byrne’s devil is boring, but it is fun to watch Schwarzenegger launch grenades at the bastard. (I really enjoy the subway sequence in particular, for some reason.) I also enjoy the fact that whenever I watch End of Days, it takes me back to December 1999. I remember being skeptical of the Y2K bug and all that stuff; but there was still a tiny little part of my brain that wondered, “What if the world really does end tonight?” on New Year’s Eve that year. End of Days is not really a “religious” movie at all, for it has nothing of any real spiritual value to offer. It is instead an A-list, big budget exploitation movie. The real point was to exploit all that apocalyptic fear everyone was feeling, and to show us as much gore and sleaze in the process as possible. While I would much prefer the story to have been written without any rape or romanticization of suicide, I do have to admire the filmmakers for being so damn eager to deconstruct Christian apocalypticism in this manner.

One thing I absolutely adore about End of Days, however, is Arnold Schwarzenegger’s attitude toward Satan throughout the entire movie. I mean, he actually tells the devil “YOU’RE A FUCKING CHOIR BOY COMPARED TO ME!” at one point. And cheesy as it might sound, I love it! I think it perfectly exemplifies what Set probably thinks and feels whenever He locks eyes with Apep

“Fuckin’ CHOIR BOY!”
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Aberamentho: Set, Yahweh, and Jesus Christ

Set does not play by Christian rules, Satanist rules, or Marvel Cinematic Universe rules, and neither do Setians.

 

Growing up in Protestant America during the 20th century, I was trained to view any divinity apart from the biblical god as either a “false idol” or “the devil.” Even being raised by nominally Christian parents, it was impossible to escape such mental conditioning. This really became an issue for me when I came to Set in 1997. As His presence grew stronger and I realized I was a Setian, people told me everything about this was “demonic.” Some were willing to accept that my god doesn’t really fit into that scheme, and that He marches to a completely different theological beat. But I wasn’t so great at explaining these things back then, and even the people who listened to me weren’t getting the full story.

The people who weren’t willing to listen didn’t care, concluding I was simply insane, possessed, or both. It especially hurt when I encountered this attitude from other Pagans, and it made me oversensitive to the subjects of Christ and Satan for quite some time. I don’t feel too ashamed about this, as there was not exactly a “surplus” of mature Setian adults for me to learn from as a kid. I had to learn how to conduct myself on my own; and while it was rough, I think I turned out OK. I know there are others who have dealt with similar growing pains too, and I just want to say you are not alone.

Since “khepering” from the rowdy Typhonian foal I once was to the generally grouchy but more agreeable jackass I am today, I gained access to better literature on Set and learned some things that mellowed me out on this stuff. And I met other people who really did learn to accept me as I am, including not only other Setians, but Pagans, atheists, agnostics, and even some born-again Christians too. I even re-learned to enjoy Alice Cooper after discovering he’s an evangelical! Just what the hell (or heaven) happened? Well, first I learned of Set’s appearances in the Greek magical papyri. He is not only called Typhon or Seth in these texts, but also things like AblanathanalbaLerthemino, and Kolchoi Tontonton. No one really knows what most of these “barbarous names” or voces magicae actually mean; but a few have been translated, including two that are important to this discussion: Iao Sabaoth and Aberamentho.

Iao Sabaoth is a Hellenized corruption of a name for the Hebrew god, who was identified with Set by Greco-Egyptian syncretists. In the earliest years CE, the polytheist world reacted to both Jehovah and Set the same way the monotheist world reacts to Satan today. Some thought the God of Israel is really Big Red in disguise, and that Jews were actually “descendants” of Set. As far as most people knew or cared, Setians and Jews were both serving an evil god that demands we have sex with donkeys, cannibalize kids, and poison local wells to spread plagues. This is one of the earliest records of blood libel, or the accusation that a minority community is committing ritualized terrorism and/or child or animal abuse. This trope shaped not only the European witch hysterias, but also contemporary urban folklore like the Satanic Panic. Conspiracy lovers still believe there is a global cabal of Satan-worshiping witches engaging in unspeakable acts, and Jews and Pagans are both still conflated with this fictitious anti-religion today.

Aberamentho means “Lord of the Waters,” which likely refers to Set sublimating and controlling the Chaos Serpent. Yet it also appears in the Pistis Sophia—a Gnostic text that was contemporary to the Greek magical papyri and the New Testament—as a name for Christ. It likely refers to St. John’s belief in Jesus as the Logos, the mystical Word, which was with IHVH before Genesis begins. In a similar way, I feel that Set and the other Netjeru were all with Ra at the Dawn of Time. I think Set is the aspect of Ra that empowered them to kheper in the first place, starting the cosmic chain of transformations that is Creation. Two savior gods who both pre-existed the universe, and who are both vital to how the cosmos functions.

The Alexamenos Graffito

And then there’s the Alexamenos graffito, scrawled on a wall to shame a Roman soldier for being Christian. It shows the poor guy praying to a cruciform donkey-headed Jesus, and it’s the earliest known image of the god at present. Christians had to meet for worship in spooky catacombs at night for fear of literally being thrown to the lions. Their polytheist neighbors saw them as lunatics worshiping an executed cult leader, and the idea of the Eucharist led to accusations of cannibalism. While the Alexamenos image does not refer to Set directly, He is implicit in the form of Christ’s equine head. Donkeys are sacred to Set, and they were maligned, abused, and murdered for this very reason at the time. So to draw someone with a donkey’s head was to vilify them, not unlike drawing someone with goat horns today.

The graffito spooked me when I first saw it, for I had seen a vision that closely resembled it during one of my earliest Sabbat rituals back in 1998. I would stay up late on Friday nights, quietly invoking Set, playing some metal for Him and talking to Him through the night. Sometimes I meditated, and on one occasion, I saw Big Red in a loincloth, being crucified by an angry mob. He had a Sha’s head, not a donkey’s; but He was being nailed to a cross just the same. For years, I thought this was just some brief artistic fancy; but while the Alexamenos graffito is not an exact duplicate of this vision, the resemblance was immediate and very shocking to me when I finally saw it in late 2007. I remember having to sit down, in fact, and someone asked me if anything was wrong (“No man, my head is just exploding!!”).

There have even been times when Set and Jesus seemed to intersect for me in bizarre ways. My mother-in-law was a deeply religious born-again Christian, and she had trouble making heads or tails of my belief system when we first met. But years later, when she was hospitalized for an injury, she had an experience with Set in her hospital bed. After that point, she and I shared a special bond where it was like Set and Jesus could be “buddies” through us. When she passed away in 2015, my Ma-in-Law asked me to pray for her; I told her to go with Jesus to his heaven, and I asked Set to clear her path of all obstacles. It was not exactly a pleasant event to experience, but it was very sacred to be sure.

I am not a fan of how Set is usually treated in most Satanist literature I’ve seen. The scholarship is usually both sloppy and full of confirmation bias; every effort is made to “prove” that Satan “came from” Set, and nothing is ever mentioned about how Set was also identified with Yahweh and Christ. I’ve had people get really upset at me for even mentioning these things, as well. They don’t want Set to be a multifaceted god who can get along with either Jesus and/or Satan whenever He might feel like it; they just want Him to be a fallen angel in Egyptian drag. But this overly dualist mindset is completely alien to the Egyptian way of thinking. Set does not play by Christian rules, Satanist rules, or Marvel Cinematic Universe rules, and it’s not His problem if anyone else is upset by this; nor is it mine.

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