Taweret—Or, When God is a Hippopotamus

A discussion of the Egyptian hippo goddess Taweret, Her connections with Set, and the reasons I love Her so much.

 

Taweret is the Egyptian hippo goddess of childbirth. Her name means “Great Female,” and She is otherwise known as Taurt, Reret, Apet, or Thoueris. According to some accounts, She was originally the female counterpart of Apep, the Chaos Serpent; but She became a goddess and a defender of Ma’at. Now—along with Her trusty sidekick, the benevolent daemon Bes—Taweret protects the frightened and the vulnerable. As frightening as all the qliphoth of the Void might be, they are frightened of Taweret, and for good reason. Her sacred animal is one of the deadliest creatures on earth, and She is the only other Netjer or Egyptian divinity who is powerful enough to wield Khepesh, the celestial Iron of Set!

Hippos are Typhonian animals, which means there’s a very strong connection between Taweret and Set. While male hippos were feared, females were celebrated for their ferocity in protecting their young. The Egyptians channeled this ferocity by invoking Taweret for protection, especially when it came to mothers and little children. Midwives commonly used hippo statuettes to instill Taweret’s strength in women who were giving birth. People kept Her image around their homes because it made them feel SAFE in a world of terror and chaos, with no hospitals or public health system as we understand such things today. People generally don’t behave that way toward influences they think are “ugly” or “disturbing,” so clearly the sight of Taweret inspired confidence. Despite Her so-called “demonic” appearance, the Great Female is there to defend the defenseless.

Taweret never had any temples or priesthoods of Her own (that we presently know of, at least); Hers was a purely folk tradition, kept alive by Egyptian peasants in their own homes. This is ironic, given that Taweret is also linked with one of the largest and most important constellations in the northern sky. The Egyptians viewed Draco not as a dragon, but as a great big hippo with a crocodile on Her back. In funerary art, this hippo was shown with sagging breasts that are heavy with milk. She holds a chain by which the Big Dipper is tethered to Polaris, the North Star. Taweret is said to keep the Dipper restrained to prevent Set from completely destroying the universe whenever He becomes too angry. She is helped in this regard by the Four Sons of Horus: Duamutef, Hapi, Imsety and Qebshenuf.

The Great Female was eventually recast as an alternate form of Isis, the sister-wife of Osiris; but I disagree with this conflation myself. Isis is linked to Sirius and the Sothic cycle, not to Draco or the circumpolar stars, and the Isian religion is known for having absorbed virtually every other goddess religion it encountered in Late Antiquity (including the cults of Aphrodite, Demeter, and Diana). But most importantly to me, Taweret is a “monstrous” divinity who was born of chaos and who exhibits chaotic traits, yet who uses Her chaotic powers to defend the cosmic order (not to un-create it, as Apep seeks to do). She trades in an altogether different, more primeval kind of fertility than Isis does. The Egyptian gods are kind of like Voltron or the Megazord; they can converge in various formations and become composite deities, and this includes Taweret and Isis as much as the rest. But this is not the same thing as saying Taweret is simply a “different version of Isis.”

Many goddesses are portrayed as beautiful, slender-bodied women, but Taweret has always been depicted as rotund, with a gaping mouth full of razor sharp teeth. She certainly isn’t the sort of “glamour girl” one normally finds in pinup magazines, and I absolutely love Her for this. (Not that I have anything against the more glamorous goddesses; remember, I revere Ishtar too.) Our patriarchal society pretends to love women, but continues to shame them for not keeping fit, wearing makeup, shaving their armpits, or bearing children. There is nothing wrong with doing either of these things so long as it is your choice, just like there is nothing wrong with wearing a skirt or a hijab so long as it is your choice. But the expectation that every woman must fit some kind of “mold” is not only misogynist; it goes against nature, as holy figures like Taweret are here to remind us.

By the time the Greek writer Plutarch came along (circa 46–120 C.E.) to offer his version of events, Taweret’s story had been changed so that She was a concubine of Set who abandoned Him after the killing of Osiris. This change was probably the result of Set’s demonization in Late Antiquity, when He was conflated with the Chaos Serpent and blamed for Egypt’s fall to foreign rule. I think Taweret is still one of Set’s many romantic partners, but She also acts as a kind of “buffer” between Him and the other Netjeru, restraining Set when He loses His self-restraint.  (A Lady who’s not afraid to smack Big Red around with His own iron genitals whenever She thinks He’s being an asshole? How can such a Female be regarded with anything but boundless AWE?)

Taweret also resembles Big Red in that She seems to have identified more with the “little people” who didn’t benefit as much from Pharaonic privilege. The peasants knew She would always listen to them, even if the “more important” gods of the Pharaohs and the priesthoods didn’t. In Typhonian Thelemic lore, it is said that Set is the male offspring or avatar of Typhon, whom Kenneth Grant depicts as a saurian mother goddess associated with Draco. Grant further claimed that “Typhon’s” worship was suppressed by later patriarchal religions. As far as I can tell, there is no historical evidence to support either of these claims, which Grant appears to have drawn from the poet Gerald Massey (who was not an Egyptologist). But I do agree with Massey and Grant that Set’s worship is linked to that of a “monstrous” female divinity who resonates with Draco, and who was ignored by the Pharaohs for some reason. I just think the entity they were describing is actually Taweret.

I think of Draco and the Big Dipper as being at the “center” of heaven. Being circumpolar, they never descend beneath the horizon, which is why the ancient Egyptians called them “the Imperishable Ones.” Unlike the planets and the constellations of the Zodiac, the circumpolar stars can be seen on any night at any time of year (in the northern hemisphere, at least, and weather permitting). Since Draco and the Dipper are above the Zodiac, I think of Taweret and Set as being “older” and “darker” than any of the various planetary divinities (e.g., Marduk and Zeus for Jupiter, Ishtar and Aphrodite for Venus, etc.), as well as divinities associated with Sirius and Orion (e.g., Isis and Osiris, respectively), which are beneath the Zodiac. Mind you, I am not asserting any of this to be a dogmatic “fact”; it’s just the way I prefer to think about the gods based on Their related stars. I also incorporated this theoretical cosmogony into A Would-Be Ombite Creation Myth, with Set and Taweret cast as the first Netjeru to be born from Nut or Mother Sky.

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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

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