Calling Professor Quatermass!

Martian grasshoppers. Genetically modified super-apes. Invisible forces only certain people can see. Quatermass and the Pit (1967) has it all.

 

I love those old Hammer horror films from the 1960s and 1970s: the ones with Christopher Lee and Peter Cushing, filmed in vivid Technicolor, with some of the most atmospheric set pieces you’ll ever see on screen. Hammer revamped all the traditional gothic horror film monsters, and they weren’t afraid to use gallons of blood in the process (which really pissed off the British censors at the time, even though the gore looks pretty fake by today’s standards). They turned Dr. Frankenstein (portrayed by Peter Cushing) into a psychopathic killer who prefers to get the parts for his monsters fresh (if you know what I mean, and I think you do). They turned Count Dracula (Christopher Lee) into a frothing-at-the-mouth sexual predator who can break mere men in half with his pinky finger. They also cast some of the most beautiful demigoddesses to have ever graced this earth. (Seriously, these ladies make their Victorian costumes look more provocative and exciting than even the skimpiest of modern beach attire.) Whether we are addressing The Evil of Frankenstein (1964), Dracula: Prince of Darkness (1966), or even The Devil Rides Out (1968), Hammer films are fucking awesome and warrant multiple repeated viewings.

If I had to choose just one Hammer film as my personal favorite, it would not be easy; but surely Quatermass and the Pit (1967, also known as Five Million Years To Earth) would be counted among my Top Five. This is a sequel to an earlier 1955 film called The Quatermass Xperiment and its immediate 1957 successor, Quatermass II. All three movies are theatrical adaptations of TV serials that were originally broadcast on the BBC in the 1950s. These serials were written and created by Nigel Kneale, who is also known for writing The Abominable Snowman of the Himalayas (1957), The Stone Tape (1972), and the original screenplay for Halloween III: Season of the Witch (1982). Kneale was a fantastic science fiction writer whose work fits rather nicely with the likes of H.P. Lovecraft, and he has been a major inspiration to such horror maestros as John Carpenter and Stephen King, whose Prince of Darkness (1987) and The Tommyknockers (1987) are both directly inspired by Quatermass and the Pit.

The Quatermass films are named for their main character, Professor Bernard Quatermass, a British rocket scientist who contends with various alien forces that seek to wipe out the human race. (In many ways, the original serials also provided a great deal of inspiration for Doctor Who.) Of the trilogy, Quatermass and the Pit is easily the best; and despite being the third film in sequence, it is written in such a way that you don’t have to view either of its predecessors to understand the characters or plot. All you really need to know going in is that it’s about a small British town called Hobb’s End (which should sound familiar to anyone who enjoys John Carpenter’s In the Mouth of Madness). Some subway workers uncover a bunch of weird fossils and an object that looks like an unexploded bomb from the German air raids during World War II. This was not an uncommon problem in England in the 1960s (hell, it’s still a problem today), so panic immediately ensues, and the military is called in to investigate. But it is soon determined that the excavated object is not a bomb after all, and that’s when Professor Quatermass is called in.

Quatermass discovers that the object is actually a spaceship, and that it contains a couple of ancient alien corpses. (The aliens look like man-sized grasshoppers.) The weird fossils that were discovered close to the ship appear to have been primates that the aliens were using as experimental test subjects. Quatermass also learns that Hobb’s End has been subject to all manner of paranormal disturbances since time immemorial; whenever someone disturbs the ground where the spaceship now rests, ghost and hauntings are soon reported throughout the surrounding area. And when a man accidentally scrapes the spaceship with a wrench, it causes all these weird telekinetic phenomena to start happening.

Quatermass figures the aliens are from Mars, and that they came to colonize the Earth before humans evolved. He thinks they planned to transfer their consciousness to the ancient primates they found, so that they could live more comfortably in our ecosystem. But something went wrong, and the aliens all died. Yet the super-apes they created survived, and some people today are actually descended from them. Such people tend to be born with weird psychic abilities, and Quatermass theorizes that this may be where all our legends of magic and witchcraft come from. The aliens even resemble Satan, with tiny horns poking out of their skulls. But there’s just one problem: even though the aliens and their super-apes are dead, the powers they evoked continue to exist in human beings today, and the alien spaceship is still functional. Quatermass fears that if anything is done to disturb the vessel, it could re-awaken the dormant Martian hive consciousness that resides within every person who is descended from the modified apes. And this is exactly what happens when the British government decides to hold a big press conference at the excavation site. Some knucklehead drops some live electrical wiring on the ship, and it wakes up.

Quatermass and the Pit

The awakening of the Hobb’s End spaceship is one of the most terrifying sequences I’ve ever seen in any horror film. Approximately half the local population is suddenly possessed by the Martian hive mind, which then drives them to murder all their neighbors, co-workers, and families. These people even kill all the animals they encounter as well; there’s one ghoulish moment when we hear them slaughtering a bunch of cats and dogs outside, and it never fails to make my blood run cold. To think that someone can just flip a biological switch and make hundreds of people suddenly murder their own loved ones is scary enough; but the situation is made even scarier by the fact that this is all caused by an accident. The Hobb’s End Massacre is not caused by the aliens (who are all deceased), but by an act of human ignorance that totally could have been prevented (had anyone heeded Quatermass’ warnings).

The heroes end up using a big iron crane to discharge the Martian spaceship’s energy back into the Earth. As in a great deal of folklore, it is the apotropaic power of iron (a substance most sacred to Set) that dispels the forces of evil in the end. But unlike most other science-fiction/horror films from this period, Quatermass and the Pit does not conclude with the male and female survivors hugging and kissing each other like everything’s going to be all right. Here, Professor Quatermass and his friend Dr. Judd (played by Barbara Shelley, my favorite Hammer glamour girl) are left standing alone amidst a sea of urban ruin, not breathing a word to each other. They’re too frightened to even look at each other, much less touch. (Perhaps they fear that doing so might spark up the Martian hive mind again?) They just stare fearfully into the night, forever traumatized by what they’ve seen and experienced. Roll credits!

One sure way to make me want to read a story or watch a film is by telling me, “It’s horror AND science fiction.” Some of my favorite films fall into this category, including Ridley Scott’sAlien (1979) and John Carpenter’sThe Thing (1982). But Nigel Kneale’s work is distinct because it combines science fiction with supernatural horror, using science to plausibly substantiate the paranormal (rather than dispelling it). The genealogical descent of all witches and wizards from Martian-engineered apes is just one example. Another would be the concept behind The Stone Tape, in which Kneale has scientists discovering that “ghosts” are actually residual “recordings” of past events that have been embedded into certain rocks. (This hypothesis is now called “the Stone Tape Theory,” which still carries considerable weight among paranormal researchers today.) And of course, Halloween III: Season of the Witch proposes that the mineral content of Stonehenge is catastrophically dangerous and can actually be weaponized by any corporation with the necessary know-how. As far as I’m concerned at least, Nigel Kneale belongs in the same company as such hard science fiction masters as Isaac Asimov and Arthur C. Clarke.

In Quatermass and the Pit, the Christian concept of “the devil” is revealed to be nothing more than a genetic race memory of the Martian colonists who experimented on our primate ancestors. These aliens were not necessarily “evil,” either; they were simply doing what they could to survive. As a Setian, the idea that “Satan was originally something else, and it wasn’t evil” has been a very old recurring theme in my life. And the idea that a sufficiently advanced or “magical” technology can be misused to wreak unspeakable havoc is also familiar, given what I have seen when ill-prepared occultniks fuck around with things like qliphoth or the SimonNecronomicon. Finally, I can identify with the idea of there being a scientific basis for “superstitions” like the use of iron objects to execrate evil spiritual forces. Indeed, Quatermass and the Pit is not only scary, but incredibly thought-provoking for anyone who takes an interest in the esoteric side of life. For Pagans and witches, I really can’t recommend it highly enough.

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Polytheism Is Not “Idolatry”

Yes Virginia, some people still believe in many gods today, and it’s every bit as legitimate as believing in just one.

 

Anthropomorphism is the act of characterizing something that isn’t human (whether animal, vegetable, or mineral) with human qualities, feelings, and motivations. Bugs Bunny, for instance, speaks English, stands on two legs, and is generally a smartass. We all know real rabbits don’t do either of these things, so Bugs is what we call an anthropomorphized rabbit (and a damn funny one, too).

It’s impossible to practice any sort of theistic religion without anthropomorphizing the god or pantheon that’s involved to some extent at least, even when it comes to monotheism. Polytheists are only the most obvious example, given that we actually invoke our gods into cultic images. Usually these icons are at least somewhat humanoid, even if they have animal heads (like the Egyptian pantheon) or multiple appendages (like the Hindu pantheon). Even when these images are completely zoomorphic, polytheists tend to be animists as well, believing that animals have souls just as humans do (as well as trees, rivers, stars, planets, etc.). So polytheism actively encourages us to anthropomorphize the entire cosmos.

Monotheists condemn this practice as “idolatry,” which is extremely offensive to polytheists for several reasons. First, it demonstrates a complete misunderstanding of what we believe and do. For some reason, monotheists always think we are cavepeople who think the icons we create and use for worship are actually alive and can move around or something like that. But not even ancient polytheists were that naïve. Our gods are not the man-made images themselves, but the cosmic forces these images are designed to signify. The statue of a god is merely a tool for worship, not the actual object of worship itself.

Just consider this story from biblical folklore:

Abram tried to convince his father, Terach, of the folly of idol worship. One day, when Abram was left alone to mind the store, he took a hammer and smashed all of the idols except the largest one. He placed the hammer in the hand of the largest idol. When his father returned and asked what happened, Abram said, “The idols got into a fight, and the big one smashed all the other ones.” His father said, “Don’t be ridiculous. These idols have no life or power. They can’t do anything.” Abram replied, “Then why do you worship them?”

While I understand this story is allegorical, it is still dehumanizing and insulting to polytheists. Personally, I hope Abram’s father replied, “I don’t worship the idols; I worship THE GODS, whom the idols REPRESENT!” (And then I hope he grounded the little ingrate, since that little stunt probably cost their entire family several meals!)

When I invoke Set into one of His sacred images that I keep in my home, I treat the image as if it were a living, breathing entity. I kiss it, share offerings with it, or even blast some heavy metal and headbang with it. However, I am not naïve enough to think the image really IS Set. Gods are powerful, invisible cosmic forces that we’ve never been able to completely understand; we can see them working through natural phenomena, but we can’t actually see them directly. (And even if we could, it would probably make our brains explode and leak right out of our ears!) By anthropomorphizing the gods and inviting them into humanized images that we have created for them, we can demonstrate our love and respect for them just like we do for all the people and animals we love. When I kiss an image of Set, I know I am really only kissing an image; but the act of kissing that image is itself a powerful symbolic act. So while we can’t see or hear or touch the gods like we can see or hear or touch each other, this is the next best thing.

I fail to see how this is any different from how Roman Catholics treat their images of Jesus, the saints, and the Virgin Mary. They light candles in front of these statues and talk to them while they pray, but none of them are daft enough to think the statues are actually Jesus, Mary, or the saints themselves. At the same time, most Christians (including non-Catholics) would consider it blasphemous to step on a crucifix or tear up a Bible, both of which are powerful iconic images. And when people think about the Christian god, they visualize him as a white-bearded patriarch sitting on a throne in the clouds. Part of the entire point to Jesus, in fact, is that he’s supposed to be Yahweh himself in human form—and it doesn’t get any more anthropomorphic than that! In other words, Christianity anthropomorphizes its god and is every bit as “idolatrous” as Paganism is; but for some reason, it’s only “bad” or “evil” when non-Christians do these things.

This image wasn’t invented by Seth McFarlane; it goes all the way back to the Canaanite god, El.

Despite what anyone else might say, anthropomorphism is not a “bad” thing at all. It is also not entirely removed from reality. For example, we now know that willow, poplar, and sugar maple trees will actually warn each other about impending insect attacks; that bees possess cognition and an extremely complicated language; and that beavers are basically hydraulic engineers, creating dams to make ponds and build houses for the families. Trees, bees, and beavers might not think, feel, or communicate the same way human beings do, but they DO in fact think, feel, and communicate. And when ancient peoples anthropomorphized these and other aspects of nature, it was their way of living in balance with the rest of the universe. Even atheists can’t help projecting human thoughts and emotions onto their beloved pets, and it’s really a good thing that human beings do this. Anthropomorphism encourages us to empathize with nature, rather than treating it like some soulless, alien thing that only exists for us to exploit. The earth would not be burning out of control like it is right now if more people anthropomorphized nature today.

Polytheists are also stigmatized for offering gifts, especially of food and drink, to images of our gods. People assume we think the images will actually move and eat the food, or that we think our gods will “starve” if we don’t “feed” them. In all my years of identifying as a polytheist, I have never met a single person who ever believed either of these claims—not even once. If you have trouble understanding why anyone would want to offer food to a god, all you really need to grasp is the historical importance of sharing meals. Food is just as important today as it was in ancient times, and having enough of it is often a struggle for many people. Hence why sharing your food with someone else is considered a HUGE sign of compassion and respect in virtually every culture across the globe. Even today, inviting people to breakfast, lunch, and/or dinner is still a prominent form of social bonding. And that right there is the true purpose of offering food to deities: to bond with them socially. By invoking gods into images and offering them food, polytheists are inviting these cosmic forces over to dinner and treating them as distinguished houseguests. This is not just some wacky superstition, but a deeply affectionate form of religious worship that is every bit as authentic, legitimate, and passionate as anything that Christians, Muslims, or Jews practice.

Different polytheists make offerings in different ways. The Egyptians ingested their offerings, believing their gods would consume the spiritual energy of the food while the worshipers consumed its physical substance. I have always liked this way of doing it best, because it feels more like one is sharing with the deity than simply giving them things. When we treat people to dinner, we don’t just pay for them to eat and not eat anything ourselves; we eat with them. And if the gods truly consume anything during this process, it is the love and good will we express to them through such demonstrations of faith. But food and drink are not the only things we can offer; we can also offer actions, like helping a deity’s sacred animals, or writing literature and/or creating art for the god(s). We can participate in our communities in ways that honor them, like donating to a library for Thoth, picking up trash in a park for Geb, or visiting a dairy farm and feeding the baby milk cows for Hathor. There are all kinds of things we can offer to the gods and share with them and others that will make our souls and spirits glow with love and good vibes.

Another stigma against polytheists is the belief that we commit human sacrifices. It is true that certain civilizations engaged in this practice, but the Egyptians do not seem to have done so for any theological purpose. In those cases where a Pharaoh’s servants were ceremonially killed and buried with the deceased king, it was to appease the king, not the gods. As a polytheist, I think killing anyone except in self-defense is a barbaric offense against the gods, and most other polytheists will tell you the same. If a person kills someone in the name of a polytheist god, they are in the exact same category as monotheists who bomb abortion clinics or fly airplanes into skyscrapers because “God told me to.”

As for animal sacrifice, most polytheists do not engage in this practice today, but those who do usually live in rural areas and are accustomed to killing their own food. They are not cat-slashing sociopaths, but regular hunters or farmers; all that’s different is that they dedicate the animals to their gods and thank the animals for their lives before killing them and eating them. It’s not that different in principle from butchers preparing kosher or halal meat products. Suffice it to say that polytheists who live in urban or suburban areas have no reason to kill any animals, since we are just as accustomed to buying our food from local supermarkets as everyone else. Many of us are also vegetarians, vegans, and/or animal rights activists, so the idea that we run around bathing ourselves in goat’s blood is total bullshit.

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Get Right With Godzilla!

A Setian look at Ishiro Honda’s Gojira (1954) and how Big G parallels Set in Egyptian mythology.

 

Prior to the 1950s, creature features were dominated by gothic characters like vampires, werewolves, and Frankenstein’s monster. This all changed after the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. At the height of the Cold War, Count Dracula and the Wolf Man just didn’t seem that frightening anymore. Now people were worried about the effects of atomic radiation. Would it cause terrible mutations to plague the earth (like in 1954’s Them)? Would it awaken prehistoric monsters and drive them to seek revenge (like in 1953’s The Beast From 20,000 Fathoms)? Would it attract the attention of aliens who could easily conquer or even destroy us (like in 1951’s The Thing From Another World)? This was the age of the “atomic horrors,” when people wrestled with the dark side of science. In many of these films, the horrific events result from unethical scientists who overstep the boundaries between mortals and the gods. By upsetting the cosmic balance in this way, these anti-heroes enable the Chaos Serpent to wreak havoc upon the earth in any number of forms. They are, in fact, the direct progeny of Dr. Victor Frankenstein, who had a much easier time adapting to the atomic era than either of his more supernatural colleagues.

The tropes of the “mad science” subgenre came into much clearer focus during the aftermath of World War II. It was absolutely horrible that the United States dropped not one but two atomic bombs on Japan during the war. But lest we forget, the Japanese committed some truly ghoulish atrocities as well. Kamikaze suicide flights; the attacks on Pearl HarborMalayaSingapore, and Hong Kong; the systematic extermination of 30 million Filipinos, Malays, Vietnamese, Cambodians, Indonesians, and Burmese; the Nanking, Manila, and Kalagong massacres of civilians; the use of chemical weaponsbiological warfare, and human experimentation on civilians and prisoners of war; the list goes on and on. The atrocities of Imperial Japan rival those of Nazi Germany, and for better or worse, the A-Bomb was the only thing that stopped them. And though Japan and the United States have been peaceful allies ever since, Japan continues to be haunted by the experience of being bombed with nuclear weapons.

When the U.S. started testing hydrogen bombs on the Marshall Islands during the 1950s, a Japanese fishing boat called The Lucky Dragon 5 was accidentally exposed to fallout from one of the exploded bombs. The entire crew was contaminated and suffered nausea, headaches, and bleeding gums. The chief radio operator, Aikichi Kuboyama, died in terrible agony and pain, praying that he would be the last victim of such terrible weaponry. Next thing anyone knew, the whole country of Japan was plunged into a panic, and that’s when the guys at Toho Studios decided to make a film about nuclear chaos as a living thing. Pulling together the creative team of director Ishiro Honda and special effects wizard Eiji Tsuburaya, it wasn’t long before Japanese movie screens were showcasing everyone’s favorite Iguanadon/Stegosaurus/Tyrannosaurus hybrid, the one and only Godzilla (or, as he is known in Japan, Gojira).

The original Godzilla, released in 1954, begins with a re-creation of the Lucky Dragon 5 incident, wherein the crew of a Japanese fishing boat notice that the ocean is glowing around them. Something roars from beneath the surface of the water, and the boat burns and sinks. A few of the men survive, but by the time the Japanese coast guard rescues them, the survivors are all suffering from radiation sickness. Not long after that, a fishing village on Odo Island is destroyed during a storm. A scientist named Kyohei Yamane (played by Takashi Shimura) leads a detailed investigation of the island, only to learn that it’s experiencing nuclear fallout. All the wells are poisoned, and the place is riddled with giant radioactive footprints. Then Godzilla shows up, and everyone gets a real good look at him. Lucky for them, Big G is just going for a walk, not seeking to cause any trouble, and he soon returns to the sea. Dr. Yamane and his team then return to Japan and report what they’ve found to the government, which promptly divides itself between those who think the story should be kept under wraps (and who are mostly men) and those who think they should be warning everybody in the country about what’s really happening (and who are mostly women).

Now Dr. Yamane has a lovely daughter named Emiko (played by Momoko Kochi), and she is caught in a tragic love triangle. She’s engaged to marry a scientist named Dr. Daisuke Serizawa (Akihiko Hirata), who is a World War II veteran. He was injured in the war, now wears an eyepatch, and seems to be alienated from everyone else around him. Unfortunately for Dr. Serizawa, Emiko has fallen in love with another dude named Hideto Ogata (Akira Takarada), a salvage ship captain who’s involved in the investigation of Godzilla. But before Emiko can break off their engagement, Serizawa shows her why he’s become so alienated from everybody. He takes her to the basement of his house and shows her a new invention he’s been working on. We can’t really see what the device does just yet, but whatever it is, it makes Emiko scream and faint. And when she leaves Serizawa’s house, it’s like she’s been lobotomized.

Meanwhile, the government begs Dr. Yamane for a way to kill Godzilla; but as Yamane himself points out, the creature has absorbed all that fallout from those H-Bomb tests at the Marshall Islands. In other words, Godzilla literally eatspisses, and shits pure atomic energy; so just how the fuck is anyone supposed to kill the big guy? Furthermore, Dr. Yamane does not want Godzilla to die, but thinks the creature should be contained and studied instead. He figures there are probably all kinds of things scientists can learn from an animal that’s strong enough to survive a atomic blast. But the government doesn’t listen; it just tries to neutralize Godzilla before he becomes too much of a nuisance. This only pisses the monster off, of course, and Big G eventually hits the city of Tokyo for a night on the town.

When Godzilla attacks Tokyo for the first time, there’s absolutely nothing humorous or “cheesy” about it. We see men being set on fire and screaming for the mercy of death. We see a mother holding her children and crying, “We’ll be with your Daddy in heaven very soon, now!” We see news anchors offering their lives to keep reporting on Godzilla for any listeners who are still trying to escape the city. We see hospital doctors waving Geiger counters over newly orphaned children (while the kids scream for their dead parents), and we see schoolchildren singing prayers for all the people who’ve died. These scenes are made even more disturbing by the fact that they weren’t just “dreamed up” by a storyboard artist. They’re based on real events Ishiro Hondo personally witnessed during the aftermaths of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. So in a way, the 1954 Godzilla isn’t just a science fiction/horror film; it’s practically a documentary.

Some have argued that Godzilla is a work of anti-American propaganda; surely, having the giant lizard puke radioactive shit all over Tokyo is really America’s fault, right? But it seems to me that Big G is actually a self-critical symbol of Japanese ultraviolence turned against itself. The way Ishiro Honda frames the narrative, it feels almost as if he thought Japan deserved to be wiped off the face of the planet by an atomic fire-breathing dinosaur. Godzilla is like a judgment from the gods, sent to humble Japan for every horrific war crime it ever committed as an Axis Power. And as the film eventually reveals, the only way to defeat the monster is by creating something even worse than what awakened him. That’s when Emiko finally reveals what Dr. Serizawa’s been hiding in his basement all this time.

Akihiko Hirata as Dr. Daisuke Serizawa.

Serizawa fought on the wrong side of an immoral war. He has directly experienced true evil more than any other character in the entire film. Perhaps he has even committed a few wartime atrocities of his own. Horrified by what probably he saw (and did) during the war, he is now a devout pacifist; yet he has invented something called “the Oxygen Destroyer,” completely by accident. This device somehow removes all oxygen from the body, instantly skeletonizing its victims; and after witnessing the holocaust in Tokyo, Emiko and Ogata try to convince Serizawa to use this new weapon against the beast. But Serizawa refuses; he’s terrified that if his Oxygen Destroyer is ever discovered, corrupt political forces from around the world will conspire to use it as a new weapon of war. What if they somehow coerce or trick him into creating more of these hellish devices? And if nuclear weapons have given us Godzilla, what terrible thing will the Oxygen Destroyer bring in its wake? That’s when Ogata says the most chilling line in the entire movie. He admits that Serizawa’s fear might become a reality; then he points out that Godzilla is reality.

Serizawa agrees to use the Oxygen Destroyer, but he destroys all of his research first to prevent anyone from ever building another one. Then he is joined by Emiko, Ogata, Yamane, and the entire Japanese navy out at sea. They find where Godzilla is currently located, and Ogata and Serizawa descend together to the ocean floor. There they find Godzilla resting, at peace with himself and his surroundings. This is the most disturbing part of the film for me personally, because it reminds us that Godzilla is just an animal, another innocent victim of World War II. After Ogata returns to the surface, Serizawa activates the Oxygen Destroyer; then he decides to stay with Godzilla. He gives his life to take the secret of his invention to his grave, and I sense he also thinks it would be unjust for Godzilla to die alone. When Godzilla and Serizawa are skeletonized together, it never fails to make me weep profusely. Godzilla is like Set in His role as the slayer of Osiris; he’s this frightening destructive force that’s been pushed too far, and which has finally gone berserk. But Serizawa is like Set as the Champion of Ra; he is capable of causing great destruction, yet he’s a good guy who wants to protect civilization from chaos. In dying together (during their first and only meeting), these two versions of Set come together as one. Normally in this kind of movie, it’s a “good” thing when someone figures out a way to defeat the monster; but here, the creature’s death is treated as a tragedy and a potential starting point for even more violence and horror to come.

“Awwww! Who’s a good little atomic dinosaur?”

Ishiro Honda’s Godzilla was so tremendously successful in Japan that an American film company called Jewell Enterprises bought the international rights for the movie in 1956. Then they adapted the film for an English-speaking audience, and this went far beyond just dubbing the film with American voice actors. Due to the sizable rift between the American and Japanese styles of storytelling, Jewell totally restructured Godzilla to make it more accessible to the average American moviegoer. They filmed entirely new scenes with Raymond Burr, who played a new character named Steve Martin (not to be confused with the comedian). This character was then edited into the film (along with some Japanese-American actor doubles), and he was made a news reporter so he would have an excellent excuse for asking so many questions of the Japanese characters. This would give American audiences a character with whom they could identify, and to whom important plot elements could be explained.

Truth be told, most Americans would never have seen Godzilla if Jewell Enterprises hadn’t re-tooled the film for its own purposes in this way. In 1956, World War II was still fresh on everyone’s minds, and Americans were still racist as fuck against Japanese people. While the original Toho film isn’t “anti-American” at all, the folks at Jewell worried that some viewers might interpret it that way. They wanted the audience to identify with the Japanese characters as much as possible, not react to them with hostility. Plus, adding Raymond Burr to the mix does absolutely nothing to brighten or cheapen the sequence in which Godzilla destroys Tokyo; the entire segment is still just as dark and depressing as it is in the Japanese cut. If it hadn’t been for Jewell’s re-packaging of the film, no one outside Japan would even know about Godzilla today. It’s definitely not above criticism, and it’s certainly inferior to the original Japanese cut; but Jewell’s Godzilla: King of the Monsters (the American title) still deserves some respect for what it’s given us. (Besides, you’re missing out on the full Godzilla experience if you only watch one version of the film or the other.)

At the end of Godzilla, Dr. Yamane predicts that if people don’t end the nuclear arms race, another Godzilla might eventually appear to punish the world again. He was proven correct less than a year later when the much less impressive Godzilla Raids Again was released in 1955. Since then, Godzilla has appeared in over 30 different films. One of my personal favorites is Ghidorah: The Three-Headed Monster (1964), which is when Godzilla becomes a defender of the earth rather than its potential destroyer. A three-headed space dragon named King Ghidorah shows up and starts burning everything to the ground with his yellow lightning breath. Then Mothra, a giant caterpillar goddess, appears and tries to get Godzilla and Rodan (a giant pterosaur) to help her kick Ghidorah’s ass. This leads to one of the most endearing scenes in any Godzilla film ever, where the three beasties actually speak to each other (while being translated for the human audience by Mothra’s twin fairies). Godzilla and Rodan say they don’t give a shit what happens to humankind; they just want to be left alone. So Mothra goes to face Ghidorah herself, only to have her ass handed to her; and when Godzilla and Rodan see that, they get royally pissed and start beating Ghidorah like he owes them money. It’s one of the greatest monster throwdowns ever made!

This sequence is so damn important and inspirational to me, I’m going to throw up a video review someone else has made about it, just so you can see some clips.

From Michael D.’s “Depression & Anti-Bullying Awareness” web series on YouTube.

Godzilla’s evolution from apocalyptic monster to child-friendly superhero is a fascinating discussion in and of itself. Recall that in the original 1954 film, Big G is a lot like Set as the slayer of Osiris. The story goes that once His rivalry with Osiris was resolved, Set was “reigned in” by the rest of the gods to save them from Apep, the Chaos Serpent. In much the same way, Godzilla starts out in the first movie as an innocent freak of nature who goes apeshit and almost nukes the entire planet; then, in Ghidorah, the world realizes it needs Godzilla to defend us from even worse monsters that just want to eat our planet. Ghidorah is really just Apep with wings, feet, and two extra heads, so whenever I watch Godzilla put the smackdown on him, I always feel like I’m watching some kind of Setian “miracle play” (with Godzilla and Rodan as a combative Set and Horus, respectively, and with Mothra as Thoth the mediator).

Since Godzilla’s rise to fame, Hollywood has tried adapting him for American audiences a number of times. In 1998, Dean Devlin and Roland Emmerich produced that terrible remake starring Matthew Broderick. It’s odd that they even chose to name the film Godzilla, considering that it’s actually a remake (or perhaps a parody) of The Beast From 20,000 Fathoms (1953). Any hardboiled Godzilla fan will tell you the 1998 film stinks and should be ignored at all costs; but in 2014, director Gareth Edwards tried adapting Big G for the West once again. And while audience reactions have been very mixed, I was quite pleased with the result myself. It is surprisingly not a remake of the 1954 original, but more of an homage to all the sequels that make Godzilla the hero. Michael Dougherty’s 2019 follow-up, Godzilla: King of the Monsters (named after the Raymond Burr re-edit from 1956), was even better in my opinion, since it’s more or less a remake of Ghidorah: The Three-Headed Monster (complete with Mothra and Rodan teaming up with Godzilla). There’s even a scene that pays homage to the Oxygen Destroyer sequence from 1954, and it makes me cry like a baby whenever I see it. These newer Godzilla flicks might not be to everyone’s liking, but I wholeheartedly approve, and I can’t wait to see more of them.

Yippee skippee!!

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The Stuff Nightmares Are Afraid Of

Wes Craven’s A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984) is a terrific allegory for the eternal conflict between Set and the Chaos Serpent. With instructions for a spell for protection during sleep.

 

In Wes Craven’s A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984), some teenagers start having nightmares in which they’re menaced by this disfigured creep who has knives for fingers. Whenever this asshat kills someone in their dreams, they die in real life at the same time. One of the teenagers, Nancy Thompson (played by Heather Langenkamp), discovers that when they were little children, their community was terrorized by a serial killer who preyed on little kids. The man was arrested and put on trial, but he got off on a technicality and was released. Then, fearing for their children’s safety, the parents of the community took the law into their own hands and burned the killer alive. But this has only made things worse, for it is the killer’s ghost who now haunts the kids in their dreams, seeking revenge against the parents by finishing what he started. Now it’s up to Nancy to find a way of execrating this evil spirit.

On the one hand, A Nightmare on Elm Street has more than its fair share of devoted fans; on the other, it receives far more derision from mainstream critics and the general public than it really deserves. I blame this on most of the sequels, which became increasingly goofy with each new installment. By the end of the 1980s, Freddy Krueger was practically a live action cartoon character, and this is the version of him that most people remember today. Sequels like The Dream Warriors (1987) and The Dream Child (1988) are more like self-parodies than straight horror films; they don’t even bother to take themselves that seriously. But if you watch the original Nightmare from 1984, I promise you: even if it doesn’t scare you, it will make you quite uncomfortable at the very least. There’s absolutely nothing “funny” about this film at all, and the Freddy Krueger character is really just the tip of the iceberg.

When the film begins, the daylight reality in which Nancy and her friends all live seems safe enough; but as Freddy Krueger becomes more prominent in their dreams, the ugly truth about their everyday world begins to unfold. These things are never stated to the audience outright, but viewers will notice that Nancy’s parents are divorced (and that the proceedings of this arrangement were anything but amicable). Nancy’s mother is an alcoholic, and her father—the town sheriff—only shows up whenever there’s a tragedy. At the same time, Tina’s mother also seems to be divorced and would much rather spend time with her boyfriend in Las Vegas than stay with her daughter (even when she knows the poor kid has been having terrible nightmares). Rod’s parents seem to be completely absent from his life, leading him to take on a life of petty crime. And then there’s Glenn (played by a baby-faced Johnny Depp), whose parents demonize Nancy for no good reason aside from the fact that two of her friends are dead.

It’s ironic that these parents once resorted to mob justice to protect their community, for they don’t seem to care very much about their community now. None of them are involved in their children’s lives anymore, and none of them seem to care that much when each other’s kids die. When Tina gets butchered, Rod is immediately accused of the crime, and none of the adults ever question this. We never see Tina’s mother afterwards, so we’re left to wonder if she even grieves for her daughter at all. When Rod gets strangled by Freddy in his jail cell, it’s clear to all the adults that it was suicide and no one shows any kind of sympathy for him. Clearly, Tina and Rod’s deaths mean nothing to Glenn’s parents, who seem to think they can avoid having anything like that happen to Glenn by keeping him away from Nancy. Meanwhile, Nancy knows exactly what’s happening, but no one will believe or even listen to her, even when the evidence is staring them in the face. For Duat’s sake, she can’t even get any help from her father, the sheriff!

It is this complete absence of parental support that makes the film truly terrifying, in my opinion. Never mind the idea that Nancy and her friends are being targeted by a supernatural force; Freddy Krueger is simply the 1980s American version of an ancient Akkadian Alû demon (i.e., a spirit that terrifies people while they sleep), and the ancient Akkadians knew well enough how to deal with such things. If an Akkadian child reported having certain experiences while he or she was asleep, his or her parents didn’t take any chances; they simply execrated the Alû with their magic and the problem usually went away. So the idea of Freddy Krueger in and of himself is not that impressive; entities like him are just little things in this world, and it doesn’t take that much to get rid of them. It would help if the Elm Street families were willing to entertain the possibility of such events in the first place; but even more importantly, the fact that the children can neither trust nor depend on their parents is a serious problem. That is what enables demonic forces like Freddy to perpetuate themselves in the first place, and that is what disturbs me most in this film.

Mind you, I’m not claiming that every childhood boogeyman is actually real; nor do I contend that magical thinking is always the best answer to one’s problems. But if I had a kid and she told me that some freak was coming after her in her dreams, I wouldn’t laugh at her or treat her like she’s crazy. I’d say, “Well, it could be one of two things going on here, hon. It could be that there really is some freak coming after you in your dreams; or, it could be that it’s just a dream and nothing more. Either way…I say we whack the fucker, just in case.” And then I’d have her draw a picture of the creep that’s scaring her, and we’d hurl all kinds of abusive language at him in Set’s good name. We’d stick pins in his ass and chop him up into little pieces; then we’d throw him in the fireplace and watch the little bastard burn. Call me superstitious if you like, but like the Akkadians, I don’t believe in taking any chances with this kind of stuff. No kid should ever have to face a monster alone like Nancy does in Nightmare on Elm Street.

(If it seems crazy that I’m talking about the things that happen in Nightmare like they’re real, I’d like to point out that the film is partially inspired by true events. During the 1970s, director Wes Craven read an article in the L.A. Times about a group of Khmer refugees who were living in the United States, and whose children were having nightmares that disturbed them so badly, they refused to sleep. Some of them later died in their sleep, and it was as if they had known they would die if they didn’t stay awake. This story disturbed Craven to his core, and it later became his main inspiration for writing Nightmare. Craven has also said that he took inspiration for the film from certain Buddhist and Taoist ideas, and anyone who’s ever listened to the man talk will know that he actually believed in some kind of spirit world.)

The Nancy Thompson character is easily the best thing about this film; in fact, she’s the very best “Final Girl” since Laurie Strode in Halloween and Ellen Ripley in Alien (1979). Unlike Laurie, she becomes aware of her nemesis early in the film and she actively hunts him down; and unlike Ripley, she has no weapons aside from her own determination and resourcefulness. Nancy eventually discovers that if she holds on to something in her dreams while she’s waking up, she can bring it over to the real world. She decides to conduct this extremely dangerous experiment with Krueger, and when it proves successful, the tables are immediately turned. Freddy finds himself at Nancy’s mercy, suffering every form of abuse the teenager can throw at him; he even becomes afraid of her at one point. And considering just how slimy a character Freddy really is, it feels really good to see him get his comeuppance this way.

This humiliation of the antagonist is a recurring theme in many of Wes Craven’s films (including 1972’s The Last House on the Left, 1977’s The Hills Have Eyes, 1988’s The Serpent and the Rainbow, 1991’s The People Under the Stairs, and 1996’s Scream). There’s almost always a transition point in these movies where the surviving victims gain some kind of advantage over the villains, and the villains become blubbering, pathetic fools. I believe Craven’s intention here was to demonstrate that while evil may often seem very powerful and formidable, it only has as much power as we allow it to have. When we take that power back, evil is revealed for the frail and empty little thing that it really is. And in the original script for Nightmare on Elm Street, that is exactly what happens; Nancy defeats Freddy Krueger by taking back all the energy she’s put into him with her fear, and his spirit is dissolved back into the Void forever.

My only criticism of A Nightmare on Elm Street is the fact that its ending was sloppily changed at the last minute, and for purely commercial reasons. Nancy defeats Krueger, and all seems well; but then she realizes she’s actually having another nightmare, and the rotten bastard gets her after all. This ending always leaves a very bad taste in my mouth. They go through the entire movie developing this really likable character who’s noble and strong and who succeeds in defeating (and even humiliating) the villain; then they pull the rug out from under her at the last minute just to give the audience one last jump scare. Granted, it scared the hell out of me when I first saw this film as a kid; but as an adult who’s digested the rest of Wes Craven’s work, I can see just how “un-Cravenian” that ending really is. As it turns out, Craven had a major dispute with Nightmare’s producer, Robert Shaye, who wanted a scary ending to set the stage for a sequel. Craven eventually gave in to Shaye’s demands just so they could finish making the film. I think this was an unfortunate choice on Craven’s part, as it prevents Nightmare from being a truly perfect film; but the rest of the film holds up remarkably well, even after 30 years, so at least there’s that.

When you stop to think about it, sleep really is kind of a scary thing. If we hold to the Cartesian definition of existence (i.e., “I think, therefore I am”), we technically cease to “exist” for a while when we aren’t awake. Sure, our bodies are still there and our brains continue to function; but we don’t really “think” in the normal sense of the term, since we aren’t conscious. So in a way, we all become like Schrödinger’s Cat when we’re asleep; we’re neither alive nor dead, and we only collapse back into a solid state of reality when we regain our capacity for conscious self-reflection. We’re extremely vulnerable while we’re in this state (both physically and otherwise), and this is partly what the Egyptians were getting at with their tales about Ra being menaced by Apep in the Underworld each night. By attacking Ra, Apep isn’t just posing a cosmic threat against the Creator; it’s also posing a personal threat against all creatures that sleep and dream.

Nancy Thompson’s struggle with Freddy Krueger is a perfect representation of this principle, especially since it’s built upon fears that many cultures traditionally associate with sleep. Apep and Krueger are both astral monsters that try to kill living things while they regenerate (whether this means a sleeping Creator or a sleeping human). Both attempt to kill the future (whether by preventing the dawn or by murdering kids). Both thrive when the good do nothing (whether this is due to a paralyzing gaze or a conspiracy of silence). And both are easily overpowered once you learn how to see through their tricks (whether this is achieved by a badass Thunder God or a plucky suburban teenager). In this way, I consider the character of Nancy Thompson to be a true daughter and warrior of Set.

Set & Nancy Thompson vs. the Serpent & Freddy Krueger

Incidentally, here is a procedure you can use to help you feel a little more like Nancy Thompson when you need it most. If you ever get scared when you’re in bed at night, give this procedure a shot. No Freddy Kruegers can hold a candle to the awesome power of He Before Whom the Sky Shakes.

Get a blank sheet of paper and some red paint. (If you don’t have any red paint, you can use a pen with red ink.) Draw a donkey that’s facing left, and write the word “EOEOE” in the shape of triangle on its neck. Then write “LERTHEMINO” on its back, and write “SABAOTH” on its breast. Finally, write the name “ABRASAX” directly beneath the donkey’s hooves, so that it looks as if the donkey is “walking” on the word. You don’t have to be a great artist; even the simplest and most child-like scribbling will do. (In fact, the simpler and more child-like you can manage, the better.) Just make absolutely sure that you draw the donkey facing to the left and that you write the voces magicae (“words of power”) exactly as I’ve said. When you’re finished, your painting or drawing should look like this:

Typhonian Spell for Protection During Sleep

Next, place this painting or drawing in a folder or something else in which it can stay unfolded and flat. (Under no circumstances should you fold it or crumple it.) You must never let any sunlight touch this image you’ve created; it must always be kept in darkness. Once you’ve placed it inside a folder, place it under the mattress of your bed. Preferably, it should be sandwiched between your mattress and your springboard. If the negative energy in your home seems to be centered on someone else in the house (e.g., a child), place the folder under his or her mattress instead. You can make one of these donkey images for each person who lives and sleeps in your home, if you like. Just follow the exact same procedure for each one. Make sure you place the images in areas where they can’t be seen, where no sunlight can touch them, and where they’re close to you and your loved ones while you sleep. Keep them there for at least seven days and nights; you can feel free to remove them after that amount of time has passed.

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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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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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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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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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Set and the Scarab of Ra

Explaining kheper, the ancient Egyptian concept of divine transformation, and how it relates to the scarab beetle, the solar Creator deity Atum-Ra, and Set as the Champion of Ra. 

 

In Egyptian mythology, the solar deity Ra (or to be more specific, Atum-Ra) is not only our literal sun, but the first god, the progenitor of all things, and the divine spark that’s hidden within every person. They are the starfire from which our planet and our very bodies are forged, and I refer to them with gender-neutral pronouns as much as possible, given they are also known as “the Great He-She.”

Ra is not said to design the universe like an architect, but to asexually reproduce it through an act of divine masturbation (both a theological and a literal “Big Bang,” you might say), right after creating themself through an act of divine introspection. First Ra lifts themself from Nun, the primordial ocean of infinite chaos, proclaiming, Khepera Kheper Kheperu—which means something to the effect of:

“I have transformed,
and by my transformation,
others too shall be transformed.”

Then Ra asexually begets the infinite plurality of gods, animals, and people that exists today. Every sentient being is, in fact, a miniature alternate Ra within the macrocosmic collective Ra, right on down from the highest of the Netjeru to the tiniest baby animal or human.

Ra’s first children, Shu and Tefnut, were separated from the Self-Created One shortly after their births. So Ra removed one of their glowing Eyes, which became the solar cow goddess Hathor, and sent her to search for the missing children. By the time Hathor reunited Shu and Tefnut with Ra, the children had come of age and produced babies of their own: the sky goddess Nut and the earth god Geb (who would later beget Osiris, Isis, Set, and Nephthys). And when Ra was reunited with all these children, they wept the happy tears that fell down to Geb and mixed with the earth, becoming the first human beings. So while the gods might be greater and more powerful than us, every person is a living demigod, a human particularization of the Great He-She, and we possess certain rights and dignities even the Netjeru can’t take away. We are not their creations or their playthings, but something more like their younger cousins.

At a later point in the myth cycle, Ra says they are “Khepera at dawn, Ra at midday, and Atum at sunset.” They are a child in the morning, an adult in the afternoon, and an elder in the evening. When night falls, Ra dies and becomes a ghost or “Night Sun” that journeys through the Underworld to be reborn again as Khepera. It is in the darkest hours before dawn that they are attacked by the Chaos Serpent, which is safely repelled by Set and His starry Iron. This is not just a solar myth, but an allegory for the sleep cycle. Many of the Netjeru are said to follow Ra’s same pattern of dying and rising, sleeping and reawakening, just as we ourselves do every day. And just as the Serpent’s assault on Ra is truly an assault on every god and mortal by extension, so too is Set’s battle with the monster a battle for all of us, from the Creator themself to that angry customer you have to deal with at work. Set is the god who never dies and who never sleeps, that the rest of us may all sleep and die and awaken and rise again in safety.

The name Khepera is especially interesting because it combines Ra’s name with the word kheper, which has at least two interrelated meanings. The most obvious translation is “scarab beetle,” an insect that is sacred to Ra. The Egyptians admired scarabs for their life cycle (from egg to larva to pupa to adult), and for their unique reproductive behavior. They lay their eggs in dung, which they then roll into large balls and move around as needed. People drew parallels between these egg-filled dung balls and the sun, imagining that Ra rolls a giant radiant egg ball across the sky. Furthermore, the scarab’s life cycle was likened to Ra’s cycle from night/ghost to dawn/child to noon/adult to dusk/elder, which brings us to the second translation for kheper. As a verb it means “to transform,” and as a noun it means “a transformation.” Whenever you experience something that profoundly changes your life, awakening you to some new unexplored horizon, you KHEPER. And each of the various “yous” that manifest from your birth to your death to your afterlife is a unique kheper in the stream of metamorphoses that is your life.

Considering that kheper is encoded in Ra’s first words at the Dawn of Time (“Khepera Kheper Kheperu”), this is an extremely powerful “magic word” indeed. So powerful, in fact, that when Michael Aquino, a leading minister in the Church of Satan, invoked “the devil” for guidance on what to do following a schism in the church in 1975, he was answered not by Lucifer but by Set, who permanently impressed the concept of kheper on Aquino that very night. Aquino and his colleagues in the Temple of Set prefer to capitalize and spell this word with the Greek letter chi (i.e., Xeper) to signify its centrality to their particular Setian current. I prefer to spell the word phonetically to prevent any confusion for my readers, and I diverge from Temple of Set members insofar as my love for Set is prioritized over kheper in my hierarchy of spiritual values. I agree kheper is important, and that Set cares more about getting us all to kheper than being worshiped. Nevertheless, I identify as a Setian because I love Set first and foremost; if kheper or Khepera were truly the central focus of my path, I would identify as a Kheperian instead.

That being said, kheper is what happens when the sun rises at dawn, when a grub emerges from the soil as an adult beetle, and when a soul or spirit is fundamentally transformed by some profound, life-altering experience. It is the principle that enables us all—cosmic god and mortal demigod alike—to theoretically live beyond death. Additionally, Set is the only other deity in the Ennead or Company of Nine to have willed Himself into existence apart from Ra (by tearing Himself from the womb of His mother, Nut). Since the Netjeru are both distinct beings and extensions of Ra’s own primeval essence, the argument can be made that Set is the aspect of Ra that enabled them to kheper in the first place, even before Big Red came forth as an entity in His own right. This would explain why He continues to play such an important role in procuring Khepera’s safe rebirth, both in the macrocosm and the microcosm. Similar to how St. John believed Christ was with Yahweh in the beginning, before the Creation of heaven and earth, you might say I believe Set was with Ra in the beginning, before the Dawn of Time.

Khepera Kheper Kheperu

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On Setian Priesthood & Pagan Ministry

On being a priest of Set and a Pagan minister, and what spiritual leadership should (and shouldn’t) look like.

 

I occasionally receive inquiries about how I came to be ordained, and how others might do the same. Here is my best attempt at distilling all my thoughts on this matter, in one convenient place.

People often refer to the concepts of “priesthood” and “religious ministry” as if they were interchangeable, but I prefer to distinguish between these two functions very carefully. The assumption that a minister is always a priest and vice versa is rooted in the monotheist premise that people in the same religious community will always follow the same god, and it is inappropriate to hold Pagans to this standard.

  • In a polytheist context at least, priesthood is the act of serving one or more particular deities with regular rituals and/or offerings, by studying their lore, and by helping others understand them as necessary. It is a devotional occupation that is all about doing something for a god or a pantheon, or their followers.
  • Ministry, in my opinion, has less to do with serving any gods in particular, and more to do with serving human beings. It is an act of community service that is mostly about helping people legally marry, procure good fortune, and/or memorialize their dead. These are practical issues that all kinds of people need help with, regardless of which god(s) they prefer to acknowledge (if any).

So when I officiate a wedding, bless a baby, or eulogize somebody’s ancestor, I am serving strictly as a minister. I don’t care if the people I help believe in any deity or not, and I will even tailor my services to reflect their beliefs (within reason, of course). Theology is only a point for discussion when it comes to my services for Set, which I see as fulfilling a more priestly role. While a person can certainly be a minister and a priest at the same time (as with most monotheist clergy), in Paganism you can also be just one or the other, or even alternate between the two as necessary.

I should clarify that I am not recognized as a priest in any particular congregation apart from my own, and that others are welcome to dispute my use of this term as they see fit. I would hope that all the work I have done so far will prove I sincerely do my best to live up to the label, and that I am not just some occultnik hack. Our coven might only consist of four people, but I’m confident enough in our shared experiences not to care too much if other groups consider us “legitimate” or not. We have little interest in increasing our own numbers, since we don’t believe anyone should have to join any sect, pay any dues, or kiss any hiney to learn about the mighty Champion of Ra. Hence my insistence on publishing everything I write about the Big Guy for free; everything in this ongoing work (such as it may be) is a votive offering not only to Him, but to all my fellow Setians as well. It is hoped that others will find the material helpful enough in some manner, even if we must agree to disagree on certain points.

As we LV-426 initiates reached adulthood, two of us decided to get married (not to each other, but to our own separate sweethearts). And since we manifest Set’s rebellious disposition so nicely, neither of us was willing to appease either of our extended families by conceding to a conventional Christian wedding ceremony, or even to a more secular procedure at a local courthouse. For this reason, I was legally ordained in the Universal Life Church Monastery so I could officiate a ceremony to my Sister Bean’s liking, and we enlisted another minister from the Monastery to officiate my own ceremony. Since then, I’ve officiated ceremonies for other couples who needed it, without concern for whether they are Setian or Pagan, and without charging any fees. Apart from working execrations, blessing a few newborns, and the one time I administered last rites for someone, weddings represent the bulk of my ministerial experience at present.

The ULC Monastery is one of those “anything goes” churches that ordains anyone who signs up for free. Such institutions are often viewed as “shams” by more traditional churches, which have huge populations and generate enough (tax-exempt) revenue to fund things like Bible colleges and theological seminaries, where they can actually send their clergy to be trained. Pagans do not enjoy anything close to the same numbers or resources that Christians enjoy, making it much harder for us to successfully launch our own churches (let alone seminaries) and keep them going. While it is not a Pagan church specifically, the Monastery makes it possible for covens like ours to enjoy the benefits of ordination without paying a shit-ton of money we don’t have to some institution we don’t even agree with. This seems only fair to us, given that we don’t own any property as a group, we have no treasury to speak of, we don’t request or accept monetary donations from anyone, and we certainly don’t charge each other any membership fees.

There are other multifaith churches that offer more conventional ordinations, such as the Universal Unitarian Church. Some Pagans I know have enrolled in such ministries to benefit from the training they offer. It’s a lot of hard work, and I have the utmost respect for anyone who chooses to go through that process. I’ve always lacked the time and the money to do it myself, and while I work well with authority in a strictly business context, this is not the case when it comes to religion. My faith is the one area in life where I get to have absolute control, and I chafe with resentment when I feel like that control is being restricted. However, I don’t wish to discourage anyone else from considering options like the UU. Online ordination has served my purposes pretty well thus far, but it is not the best option for everyone, and I wish nothing but the best for those who endeavor to graduate from more structured ministerial programs.

That being said, I fully disclose that I am not a licensed counselor or social worker, and that I am ill-equipped to handle some of the issues ministers in other faiths are trained to deal with. I do, however, work in a field relating to public health, and whenever I meet someone who needs help to such an extent, I always refer them to licensed (and preferably secular) professionals. I don’t milk them for all they’re worth like some televangelist faith healer. I also don’t fuck around with people’s safety, and if I think someone might be extremely dangerous to either themselves or others, I will report any evidence I find to the appropriate authorities. There are traditional organized churches that train their ministers in all kinds of ways, but which also harbor and protect obvious evildoers among their own leadership. So whenever I hear more privileged faiths poo-poo the idea of online ordination, it just tells me they hate minority religions and want to keep us down. Besides, my ministerial work is supplemental to my sacerdotal work anyway. While I do my best to help whomever I can whenever I can, I really do what I do for Set and for other Setians—which is to say, I identify as a Setian priest first and a Pagan minister second.

Piggybacking on a multifaith online church is certainly not an optimal method for circumventing the lack of legal equity between our various religious traditions; but starting my own church has never seemed like a practical idea. I doubt there would be that many people knocking down the door to join, and I am uncertain as to what I could really offer those who did. I also have serious ethical problems with how churches are allowed to become tax-exempt businesses, political interest groups, and safe havens for sex offenders in this country. Part of me would want any church I help launch to actually pay taxes, just as a matter of principle and accountability. But then again, there are many ways in which tax exemption is extremely helpful for Pagan churches that are already struggling to get by as it is; so I am conflicted on the matter. Until a better option presents itself, I’ll just make do with independently serving Set as a priest from LV-426, and with facilitating any ministerial work I might need to provide through the ULC Monastery.

While I take my work very seriously, I don’t claim to be some prophet who holds the keys to all the mysteries of the universe, and I am extremely critical of anyone else who does. Set demands self-determination, not blind obedience, and anything that infringes upon your personal sovereignty is anathema to Him. There are far too many priests and ministers (of all religions, including Paganism) who prey on the people they “help” for power, money, or sex. If someone demands that you give something of yourself that you don’t want to give—whether it’s your time, your money, your ability to think critically, or even your body—that is NOT OKAY. I don’t care what religion you are, Set’s gift of autonomy is for ALL sentient beings, and those who deprive others of this gift will become pet food for Ammut in the Underworld!

As a final note, I still occasionally meet other Pagans who think I must either talk backwards, eat babies, or spin my head around 360 degrees because I worship Set. With all due respect to experts in other fields: if the extent of your knowledge about Big Red is that He is the “Egyptian devil” or “god of evil,” then you are a LAYPERSON as far as He is concerned, and people like me are here to put you back in your lane. We aren’t going away any time soon, either; in fact, I reckon the 2020s will see more of us awakening to our true identities than ever before! Set is mighty, and so are we!

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“Do You Worship the Devil?”

The word devil is really just as vague and complex as the word god, holding multiple meanings across the world. So when we “speak of the devil,” just what in hell are we actually speaking about? 

 

Accusing someone of “worshiping the devil” is the easiest way to discredit their faith and beliefs. Pagans are no strangers to such accusations, and this is doubly true for Setians, Lokeans, and others who walk with the so-called “powers of darkness.” But the word devil is really just as vague and complex as the word god, holding multiple meanings for different people and cultures across the world. So when we “speak of the devil,” just what in hell are we actually speaking about?

The figure identified as “Satan” in popular culture is not 100% Christian in origin, but something more like a schizoid Frankenstein monster patched together from various religious traditions over the centuries. The ideas that people have about this figure today are not only influenced by biblical teachings, but by generations of militant Christian deculturalization as well. Most accusations of “Satanism” turn out to be nothing more than non-Christian religions upon closer inspection (or in especially ludicrous cases, they turn out to be any Christian denomination apart from one’s own). There are also several different versions of “Satan” referenced throughout popular culture, and people never seem to know which of these variants they happen to be discussing at any given time. The situation gets even more complex when we account for actual Satanist beliefs about the devil, which is a whole other kettle of elephantfish.

Satan as the Heavenly Prosecutor

Introduced to us in the biblical book of Job, this version of Satan is far less subversive than people commonly know. He is but a servant of the Israelite god, only committing the harms his maker allows him to commit. Tormenting humans, tempting them, and testing their faith in Yahweh is not an act of rebellion, but a service he provides at his maker’s behest. As such, the purest distillation of Satan in my opinion is simply the shadow side of monotheism itself. If the entire point of such belief is our submission to just one god (and our strict avoidance of all others), then naturally someone is needed to periodically test that allegiance. The way I see it, the Old Testament Satan represents the dark side of Jehovah himself; there is no other role for a devil that makes any theological sense in a purely monotheist context.

While I accept the Christian god as being ontologically real, I remain skeptical of his alleged omnipotence, omniscience, omnipresence, and omnibenevolence. I believe Yahweh and Jesus Christ both exist, but they are just two more finite gods occupying our shared multiverse, neither more nor less important or perfect than any other divinity in objective reality. I accept they are of central importance to their own followers, and I can see how Satan the Heavenly Prosecutor would figure largely in their personal value systems. But to “worship the devil” in this context seems equivalent to accepting a payoff from Mr. Slugworth, then learning the slick bastard was really working for Willy Wonka the whole damn time (but now you can’t have any chocolate!). In my experience, this version of the devil isn’t venerated by anyone (not even by real Satanists); people are only ever accused of trafficking with him by monotheists.

Satan as a Serpent, Dragon, or Gnostic Figure

In the book of Genesis, the first man and woman are deceived into disobeying Yahweh by a talking snake. Many people think of that snake as Satan, but it was never identified as such until New Testament times. By that point, Judaism and Christianity had both been influenced by such combat myths as the Babylonian Enuma Elish. These are tales of divine warriors battling monstrous serpents or dragons to create or save the world, and Set’s daily pre-dawn battle with Apep is just one of many variants. Judaism already developed its own variant of this story in the figure of Leviathan, a sea monster that represents all human and supernatural defiance of Yahweh. (Leviathan originally comes from Phoenician mythology, in which it is sent to attack the Elohim by the daemon Yamm, who is battled by Set in the Edfu Texts.) So by the time Roman emperors started feeding Christians to lions for sport, the biblical idea of the Genesis snake had been firmly conflated with the polytheist Chaos Serpent, which seeks to end the universe. Hence the depiction of Satan as an apocalyptic “great red dragon” in the book of Revelation.

The Gnostics were Jewish and Christian heretics who lived during New Testament times, and who deviated from monotheism. They believed in not one but two gods: a benevolent god of pure spirit who transcends the physical universe, and an evil material god who keeps our souls trapped and miserable here on earth. Some viewed the Genesis snake as a messiah sent by the good god to free us from the prisons of our flesh. Mainstream Christians decided these people were “Satanists” for this reason, and some real life Satanists actually take their cues from Gnosticism as a result.

To be honest, I find Gnosticism troubling. It teaches that nature is soulless, and that human souls are alien not only to their surroundings, but to their own bodies as well. Such anti-cosmicism is really in vogue among left-hand path circles, which often re-define the Chaos Serpent as a kind of Gnostic savior figure. There are even Setians who engage in this, conflating Set with Apep (which is predicated on Set’s demonization as the Greek Typhon circa 712–323 BCE). With all due respect to these people, I believe Setianism is about revering a god who is a part of nature, and who is absolutely essential to how the cosmos perpetuates itself. Qliphothic diabolism, on the other hand, is the adoration of something external or even hostile to nature (which contradicts the entire premise of honoring a Pagan god in the first place). Setians can combine their love for Set with any other spiritual traditions they like, and we do not need each other’s approval to do so. But to my mind at least, Set shares more similarities with Jesus Christ, the archangel Michael, and even Jehovah in this particular context (Aberamentho!) than He does with Satan.

(Mind you, I don’t believe Set is “angered” or “offended” by anyone identifying Him with the Serpent. He’s a big god, He’s got a thick proverbial skin, and I’m sure He has His reasons for interacting with folks like Kenneth Grant and Michael W. Ford. I fully admit I am likely more bothered by this subject than Set is Himself. My intent here is not to “shame” anyone into ditching their copies of Nightside of Eden or Sekhem Apep, though I encourage people to at least consider the idea.)

Satan as Antichrist or the Great Beast 666

Again, there is a major biblical distinction between “the Antichrist” and “the Great Beast 666,” which is called Therion in Greek. Antichrist is basically the spirit of Christian hypocrisy itself, or the impulse to do un-Christian things in Christ’s name; Therion is the archetypal evil tyrant who brings disaster upon his own nation. The latter goes back to the primeval origins of human government, but Christians first met him in the guise of the Roman emperors, whom they considered to be satanically possessed (and for good reason). Somewhere down the line, Antichrist and Therion were blurred together into the same popular image: that of the devil’s half-human offspring, destined to set the world ablaze.

In this context, Satan is a metaphor for both Christian and political corruption. Anyone can be deceived by a corrupt politician, including Pagans; but the idea that we are out to cause the downfall of human civilization is just ridiculous. And accusing us of worshiping Christian hypocrisy makes no sense at all. People like Paula WhiteCreflo DollarKenneth CopelandRod Parsley, and other “prosperity gospel” televangelists do a much better job of driving people away from Christ than Pagans ever could. No one does a better job of publicly glorifying Antichrist than these false ministers of Mammon.

As for Therion, there are reasons for thinking he might be enemies with Ishtar, who is my Holy Mother Goddess. Part of Ishtar’s role in ancient Babylon was to empower the kings and punish them severely if they failed to take good care of their people. Especially shitty rulers were offered as blood sacrifices to Her, demonstrating that She does not suffer tyrants lightly. Even the Bible seems to agree that the Great Beast and the “Whore of Babylon” despise each other (Revelation 17:15–18). So if someone accuses me of “worshiping Satan” in the sense of supporting the tyrannical persecution of Christians, they couldn’t be further from the truth. As a Pagan, I would prefer to live in a world where no one is ever persecuted for living the life they want to live, neither Pagans nor Christians nor anyone else.

But while Therion is a symbol of tyranny and persecution for Christians, he more often represents freedom, liberty, and self-empowerment for Satanists. This interpretation is not biblical, but is influenced by the teachings of Aleister Crowley, who actually claimed to be Therion incarnate. (Considering how oppressive and manipulative a person he was, I’m inclined to agree that Crowley was a perfect avatar for the Final Tyrant.) If we define Therion in a strictly Thelemic or Satanic context, I can see how the figure might be used to exemplify key Setian values like autonomy and self-ownership. But if we define him in the Christian context, I consider him anti-Setian and want nothing to do with him.

Satan as a Fallen Angel (“Lucifer”)

The devil’s most well-known origin story is that he was originally an angel in heaven named Lucifer. He tried to usurp his Creator’s throne, was cast down from heaven for his pride, and now rules his own kingdom down in hell. This story does not appear anywhere in the entire Bible; it’s actually a polytheist theme that was not fully absorbed into Satan’s demonology until the medieval era. (The reference to “Lucifer” in Isaiah is a shoddy Latin translation; the original Hebrew text refers to a mortal Babylonian king.) Prior to this, Lucifer was one of many polytheist gods identified with Venus, the Morningstar. The astronomical behaviors of this planet—keeping near the horizon; shining brightest at twilight; “defying” the sun by appearing just before dawn—led people to associate it with several uppity gods who subverted their elders. Each of these Venusian powers is linked with fire and fertility, as well as with death and resurrection. Females like Aphrodite and Inanna are usually successful in their rebellious designs, but their male counterparts are more often ruined and forced into exile, which brings us back to Lucifer.

There is no direct relation between Set and the Lucifer myth, but some people draw parallels between the two anyway. Set’s demonization can be likened to Lucifer’s fall from heaven; and then there’s the theme of Set defending Ra from Apep in the Underworld just before sunrise. The idea of a rebellious Red God facilitating the sun’s rebirth can be linked with the theme of a “fallen angel” heralding the dawn. I must admit, however, that these associations are a bit of a stretch for me personally. Set has little to do with Venus, amd most other divinities who do are “dying-and-rising” figures. Set never dies, and He never “falls down” into the Underworld either; He just travels there every night with the Creator to serve as Ra’s personal bodyguard. This dynamic doesn’t really jive so well with the “Fuck God, I’d rather rule in hell!” attitude that Lucifer more often exemplifies. In my opinion, Set and Lucifer are two completely unrelated figures, though I can see how Big Red might bond with the latter as a drinking buddy.

The truth is that when I hear or read the word Lucifer, I think of ISHTAR and not Set. Lady Morningstar appears in my mind’s eye as a beautiful angel with raven-black hair and wings, shining with unbridled fury. I can’t help but root for Her as She tricks Ea into giving Her the powers of civilization; as She descends into the Netherworld to face Her sister Ereshkigal; as She slays Her ungrateful husband Tammuz to take Her place in hell; and as She rages against that insolent megalomaniac, Gilgamesh. Ishtar’s resemblance to the biblical “Whore of Babylon” is famous, but She also resembles a female Lucifer who (unlike the more popular male version) generally succeeds in getting Her way. So if anyone accuses me of “worshiping Lucifer,” my first reaction is not to deny the accusation, but to correct it. (“My Angel of Light is a Lady, so if you absolutely have to call Her something in Latin, it really ought to be Lucifera!”)

Satan as a Horned God

By far, the most well-known version of the devil is that of a wooly goatman who frolicks with witches in the dead of night. This motif developed well after the Protestant Reformation, when the European witch hysterias reached their apex. It has no biblical basis, but is instead a synthesis of Protestant reactions to Judaism, Catholicism, several medieval Christian heresies, and numerous polytheist folk traditions. Much has already been said of how the devil’s horns and cloven hooves were appropriated from the Greek satyr god Pan, who similarly enjoys frolicking with nymphs at night. But there are actually several gods who were absorbed into this devil, not just Pan. Virtually every culture has acknowledged some kind of nocturnal horned god who digs raunchy, bacchanalian rites; and it is here that I experience the most trouble with my surrounding culture. As with most people, this is the “Satan” I always think of first whenever anyone brings up “the devil.” Society has drilled it into me since birth that horned, hoofed goatmen are supposed to be “evil”; and yet this imagery is quite sacred and inspirational to me personally.

Set is just one of the many gods whose imagery was appropriated for this version of Satan (thanks to the Coptic Church). We see this in Set’s affinity for nighttime, the color red, and such horned Artiodactyla as oryx and antelope. We can also see it in His attraction to goddesses who defy conventional gender roles (Taweret, Ishtar, Nephthys, Anat, etc.). And then there’s the fact that He is the god of wilderness, deserts, and other places beyond human civilization. From the moment I first met Him back in 1997, I have always felt compelled to honor Set out in the woods at night; so I identify with the Horned God image pretty strongly. For this reason, my brain does two things whenever people talk about “Satan” around me (whether it’s in conversations about religion, horror movies, or heavy metal music):

  • It immediately conjures up a Horned God image.
  • It immediately translates the name Satan into SET.

Some claim that the Hebrew word Satan is etymologically derived from Set’s name (via “Set-Hen” or some variant thereof). There is no evidence to support this assertion; yet it speaks to a very real Setian emotional experience. Some of us (myself included) first come to Set without fully understanding who or what He really is. Some don’t even know that much about ancient Egypt when He first calls them; they might realize there’s this spooky nocturnal Red God speaking to their souls, but that’s it. Setians in these situations often have little choice but to conceptualize themselves as “Satanists” when they first answer the call. (What the hell else are we supposed to do when society tells us that’s exactly what we are, and we don’t know any different?) Some may continue to identify as such for life; remember, Setian beliefs are not limited to Kemeticism, but can also intersect with other religious traditions (including Satanism and Christianity, both). Still others may discard “Satan” into the proverbial wastebasket once they develop a more Kemetic understanding of Big Red. (I can’t tell you how much better I felt once I achieved this for myself.)

Here’s an example of what I mean about my brain “translating” the Horned God motif into Set. One of my favorite bands is the Danish metal group Mercyful Fate, fronted by King Diamond. One of their greatest songs is “The Oath” from their 1984 album, Don’t Break the Oath. The lyrics of the song are partially adapted from Dennis Wheatley’s 1960 novel, The Satanist, which features a so-called “black mass.” But whenever I listen to this song, here is how my brain translates the lyrics:

Here is a link to the original song by Mercyful Fate, for anyone who might be interested.

It might seem odd that anyone would appropriate Satanic symbolism for a Pagan god (as opposed to simply rejecting such iconography altogether); but the way I see it, this is a perfectly logical thing for Pagans to do in our contemporary environment. Christians came along, wrested control of our religious narratives, and indoctrinated entire generations into thinking our various horned gods are really “the devil.” So it seems only right that Pagans, in turn, should appropriate “the devil” and turn it back into something positive that we can use for our own purposes, as demonstrated in the graphic above.

Satan as a Romantic Anti-Hero

From the 17th to the 19th centuries, serious belief in Satan had waned throughout the West, with the figure seldom appearing in any religious context. During this period, he was more often seen in works of art, literature, folklore, and political philosophy. Several artists, writers, and even radical leftists invoked the devil in their works as a sympathetic rebel against tyranny (personified by the Christian god). John Milton’s epic poem Paradise Lost is only the most prominent example; others include various works by William GodwinLord ByronPercy Bysshe ShelleyPierre-Joseph ProudhonMikhail Bakunin, and even Mark Twain. And since the point of this artistic movement was to encourage freethinking (for which Satan was thought to be the perfect symbol), it has since become known as “literary Satanism.”

It always confuses people to learn that mainstream Satanist groups like the Church of Satan and the Satanic Temple don’t actually “worship the devil” per se, but are atheists. This makes a great deal more sense when we remember that such groups are really descended from the literary Satanism movement. Anton LaVey didn’t take his Satan from the Bible; he drew him from Paradise Lost and other similar works. The point is not to be a “devil worshiper” but to actually become an arch-rebel oneself, in the flesh. While the chosen terminology might frighten outsiders, the whole thing amounts to little more than thinking rationally, challenging authority, and championing personal liberty, which I think are values most people can agree with. There are some things about mainstream Satanism I find annoying (e.g., I can do without Peter Gilmore’s near-constant assertion that all theists are categorically insane); but on the whole, I think it’s a pretty reasonable way of looking at the world (“Satanic” or not).

Returning to the $666 Million Question: “Do You Worship the Devil?”

When Pagans are accused of “worshiping the devil,” our typical response is to say “We don’t believe in Satan.” But as I have discussed here, the word devil is just as culturally loaded as the word god. If we define Satan in strictly biblical terms, then no, most of us do not believe in “the devil” at all. But when most people discuss this figure (including Christians), they are referring to one or more non-canonical tropes, not to the original biblical concept. And whenever this is the case, things become much less cut-and-dry. Many of us worship a horned god and consider ourselves to be witches (myself included). Some pray to Venusian deities who can be read as prototypes for Lucifer (again, myself included). And there are even people who actually glorify the Chaos Serpent (myself NOT included, thank you very much). Some Pagans who fit these descriptions actually identify as Satanists too (or as Luciferians). Who are we to tell them they aren’t welcome in our community, so long as they live and let live? If we can accept Christopagans and Jewitches in our subculture but not Satanists, then we are hypocrites.

While more Pagans are fortunate enough to be raised in Pagan families today, the majority of us are converts from other faiths, and most of us were raised either Catholic or Protestant. “I still have a soft spot for the Catholic Church” is a common sentiment I’ve heard from Pagans who were raised Catholic, and this is likely because Catholicism absorbed quite a bit of Paganism into itself over the centuries. Blooming Pagan teenagers in Catholic families are already exposed to countless Pagan ideas, from venerating a goddess (the Virgin Mary) to celebrating the three nights of Samhain (All Hallows’ Eve, All Saints’ Day, and All Souls’ Day). But the entire point to Protestantism is to purify Christianity of all such Pagan influences, consigning them to the devil. So Satan is often the only Pagan thing many Protestant kids are exposed to when they are young. And when a Pagan first blooms in such surroundings, it can be much more difficult to “unlearn” the things they have been conditioned to believe. Going from “hailing Mary” to “hailing Hathor” is one thing, but going from “fearing Satan” to “loving Pan” is quite another.

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An LV-426 Perspective on the Qliphoth

Why I refer to evil spirits as qliphoth rather than “demons,” and why I don’t recommend messing with them.

 

The word qliphoth comes from the Hebrew kellipot (“shells”). In Kabbalah (a tradition of Jewish mysticism), the kellipot aren’t necessarily “evil,” but can be good or bad depending on the context. But in Hermetic Qabalah (the European version of Kabbalah), they are considered to be the astral “shells” of beings that used to exist, but which have long since been destroyed. Soulless and bodiless, these vampiric entities do whatever they can to intrude upon our reality and feed on the psychological traumas of the living. Many of them are completely evil by any definition of the term, and should be avoided at all cost. The singular form of qliphoth is qlipha, and it is more or less equivalent to the term “demon” in our modern vernacular. In a Hermetic context at least, qliphoth are malevolent ghosts that are dangerous for the living to engage with, and which must be execrated whenever they are encountered.

I refer to evil spirits as qliphoth because I feel the word demon has become too culturally loaded. In the original Greek, a daimon is virtually any spirit that exists somewhere between gods and human beings. This is a very wide spectrum that includes everything from ghosts and angels to nymphs and satyrs. Therefore, daimon (or daemon, the Latin equivalent) is a morally neutral term that has nothing to do with whether a paranormal entity is “good” or “evil.” In fact, the Greeks distinguished between “good demons” (agathodaimones) and “bad demons” (kakodaimones) until Christians came along and appropriated the label for their own use. The only reason demon came to mean “evil spirit” is because Christians applied it to spirits that didn’t submit to Yahweh’s authority—including not only the fallen angels of Christian myth, but all “Gentile” (i.e., Pagan) divinities as well. Hence why so many medieval grimoires refer to such “demons” as Ammon (a corruption of the Egyptian god Amun), Astaroth (a corruption of the Akkadian Ishtar/Astarte), and Bael (a corruption of the Phoenician Ba’al Hadad).

Agathodaimon

A Pompeian fresco from the Casa dei Vetti (“House of the Vetti”), featuring
an agathodaimon represented as a snake (circa 63–79 CE).

So when we discuss demonology, what are we actually discussing? Are we really talking about evil spirits, or are we just talking about someone else’s gods? There are still Hellenic Pagans who invoke and make offerings to certain daimones today, and there is also a religion called Demonolatry, in which people worship Pagan gods who were demonized in the Bible. The important thing to understand about both of these groups is that when they discuss “worshiping demons,” they are not claiming to revere evil spirits. They are simply using the word demon in a Pagan context, rather than a Christian one.

Even spirits that do hurt people aren’t necessarily “evil” through and through. Some are provoked into hurting people; consider Goetia, in which the magician evokes the spirits and binds them to his or her will. This involves hurling abusive insults at the spirits and bossing them around while standing within a protective circle. The idea is that the spirits might tear the magician apart if she is foolish enough to step outside the circle; but given how they are treated in such procedures, can anyone really blame them? It’s an entirely different matter when a spirit harms people simply because it can. We can debate all day as to why it does what it does, but for all practical intents and purposes, it’s just evil. The only appropriate way to interact with such an entity is to avoid and/or execrate it accordingly.

I reserve the term qliphoth for spirits that are specifically characterized as evil in their own lore, and that have always been considered evil for as long as we’ve known about them. For example, figures like Astaroth and Bael don’t count, for they are simply Pagan gods who’ve been demonized. But beings like AnzuLamia, and Zahhak were considered evil even by Pagans in pre-biblical times. This is an indicator that such entities are extremely dangerous and should never be invoked or worshiped by anyone.

Where do the qliphoth come from? You might recall that in Egyptian ontology, there is a difference between the ba or soul and the ka or spirit. Let’s say there’s this guy named Freddy who really enjoys hurting people as much as he can. Then Freddy dies, and Anubis comes and takes his soul to the Otherworld for the Weighing of the Heart, while Freddy’s spirit remains here on Earth as a ghost. Once in Duat, Freddy’s heart is weighed and is found completely unworthy of the afterlife; so Anubis feeds it to Ammut, the Devourer of Hearts, and Freddy ceases to exist. Yet his ghost is still lingering down here on Earth, and since no one likes him enough to remember him or visit his grave, the ghost is in danger of fading away forever. Perhaps it might learn to perpetuate itself by tormenting the living and feeding on the bioelectrical energy they release when they are terrified. Perhaps it will realize children are its most suitable victims, since they are more vulnerable to astral attack than most adults. If and when this happens, Freddy’s ghost becomes a qlipha and will continue tormenting the living until someone forces it to stop.

Wes Craven's Freddy Krueger

Screw you, Krueger!

Qliphoth don’t always understand what they are doing; as Stephen King once wrote in his 1996 novel, Desperation: “Evil is both fragile and stupid, dying soon after the ecosystem it’s poisoned.” Whether they are fully cognizant or not, all qliphoth serve the Serpent and do its bidding. The Serpent’s ultimate goal is to un-create everything the gods have made (including the gods themselves); but it will also settle for un-creating little things whenever it can, such as an individual soul. This is precisely what happens when a human being is reduced to an astral fragment of him or herself after death. The more people dehumanize each other, the more likely it is they will lose their souls; the more souls that are lost, the more likely it is that we will become qliphoth when we die; and the more qliphoth that come into existence, the more minions the Serpent has to help it ruin more souls (and create more qliphoth).

There are some traditions in which people “work with” the qliphoth, or even worship them outright. Kenneth Grant developed a system of ceremonial magic based on this premise, and the SimonNecronomicon is loaded with qliphothic “traps” that can backfire on unwary dabblers. (Check out David Harms’ and John Wisdom Gonce III’s The Necronomicon Files for some more background on this particular tangent.) Grant knew how dangerous his work with the qliphoth was, so he took steps to limit who could access it. (You’d have to be a goddamn Wall Street tycoon to even buy one of Grant’s books, which are all out of print and exceedingly overpriced.) The Necronomicon guys, on the other hand, made their material available to everyone, and for less than $10 to boot. Thanks to them, we now live in an age when any asscracker can go around opening qliphothic wormholes, letting Set knows what slither into our world. I’m not in the business of telling others what to do with their souls, but I would strongly recommend against playing around with this stuff (unless you actually want to drive yourself crazy and become possessed).1

The Simon Necronomicon

The Simon Necronomicon (Avon Books, 1977).

One thing Kenneth Grant and “Simon” had in common was their shared belief that H.P. Lovecraft was actually a “sleeping prophet.” They thought the monsters in Lovecraft’s fiction are very real entities that exist in some other dimension, which Lovecraft supposedly visited through his dreams. I’m willing to concede that some Lovecraftian occultists, at least, are really contacting spiritual beings of some kind. I don’t believe for one second that fictional characters like Cthulhu or Nyarlathotep are real; but I do believe that if you invoke “Cthulhu” in a ritual, someone or something might choose to answer you by that name. If you’re lucky, it will be a god or a benevolent daemon of some sort; if you’re unlucky, it will be a qlipha that wants to skull-fuck you six ways from Sunday. We can be fairly confident that when you invoke a god like Set, whose name has been used for centuries, you will get the real Set and not an imposter. But a name like Cthulhu is still too new and fresh for it to consistently “belong” to any particular spiritual entity, so there’s just no telling what might answer you if you use it. You could be blessed by some Mesopotamian goddess, or you could end up tormented by an aqrabuamelu scorpion-man for the rest of your life.

This tendency to create religions around fictional characters is not always so disturbing. It might seem a little weird if someone chooses to worship Batman or Wonder Woman, but at least these are good role models for people to emulate, if that is what they wish to do. But I have never understood why anyone would want to worship something like Cthulhu or the Slender Man. These are monsters no one in their right mind would ever want to meet in real life, so honoring them just makes no sense. And as I explained above, invoking such figures can open your soul to forces you shouldn’t be trifling with. In the LV-426 Tradition, we refer to this phenomenon as “the Sutter Cane Effect” (in reference to the main antagonist in John Carpenter’s 1994 film, In the Mouth of Madness). Unlike the Buddhist concept of tulpas (in which people create paranormal beings with their own psychic energy), the Cane Effect is what happens when qliphoth impersonate fictional characters, making them seem to become “real.” I don’t think this is really an issue with characters like Batman or Wonder Woman, who are too strongly identified with things like justice and mercy to become qliphothic avatars. It seems to me that qliphoth more readily attach themselves to characters that reflect their true dispositions, like Yog-Sothoth or Hedorah the Smog Monster.

The Qabalic Tree of Death

The “Tree of Death” in Hermetic Qabalah.

Some occultists believe it is necessary to work with the qliphoth in order to develop a full understanding of the spirit world; they argue that by avoiding these entities, one is “ignoring one side of a two-sided coin.” I applaud anyone who, like Kenneth Grant, can do this while keeping all that qliphothic energy they are drawing to themselves under control. But with all due respect to Grant, most people are incapable of doing this and would only succeed in getting themselves possessed or killed if they tried. There are other ways to liberate and enlighten your soul than by trying to corral a bunch of invisible, rabid-ass baboons. In LV-426, we reject this notion of engaging with any Lovecraftian monsters at all, unless it is to execrate them and send them screaming back to the void. We take Set’s role as the Champion of Ra very seriously, and we are each committed to resisting the Serpent and its agents in as many ways as we can.

H.P. Lovecraft's Cthulhu

A sketch H.P. Lovecraft drew of his monster, Cthulhu, in 1934.

1 The Simon Necronomicon instructs its readers to attempt astral travel without taking any of the normal precautions (e.g., banishings). It also requires you to invoke an entity called “the Watcher,” which is supposed to “protect” your body while you go off exploring other worlds in spirit form. This Watcher has a carnivorous appetite and will supposedly kill you if you don’t keep it well-fed with all the proper sacrifices. To make things even worse, the book also implores practitioners to recite Sumerian “incantations” that actually translate into execrations of the gods. So in effect, Necronomicon enthusiasts are putting themselves under the protection of evil spirits while also telling the good spirits to fuck off. This is rather like asking a serial killer to watch over you while you sleep, then smashing your phone so you can’t dial 911.

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What Are You Afraid Of? It’s Only Rock & Roll!

Discussing the theme of “backmasked” messages in heavy metal music during the Satanic Panic, as explored in the 1986 comedy horror film, Trick or Treat. 

 

One of my all-time favorite movies is a flick that hardly anyone seems to know about. You have to be a real 1980s horror nerd to have seen Charles Martin Smith’s Trick or Treat (1986), and it probably helps if you’re a metalhead too. I’ve never once seen the flick listed on anyone’s “Top 10 Favorite Movies” list, but you will certainly find it on mine, and I’ll tell you why. To the best of my knowledge, this is the first film ever made that features a plot inspired entirely by heavy metal and the hatred it received from politicians, televangelists, and self-righteous soccer moms during the 1980’s Satanic Panic. It may not necessarily be the best film of its subgenre; undoubtedly, many people would probably vote for Jason Lei Howden’s Deathgasm (2015), which has a very similar plot. But despite Deathgasm’s superior production values, Trick or Treat did it first, and it made a huge impression on me while I was growing up.

Eddie Weinbauer (played by Marc Price, better known as “Skippy” from Family Ties) is a teenage metalhead who lives in the town of Lakeridge, North Carolina, and who goes by the nickname “Ragman.” Eddie is especially dedicated to the music of Sammi Curr (Tony Fields), a glam metal shock rocker who’s obviously inspired by Alice Cooper. Eddie absolutely worships Sammi, and he’s friends with a radio DJ named “Nuke” (Gene Simmons of KISS), a nerd named Roger (Glen Morgan, one of the lead writers for The X-Files and the Final Destination movies), and a pretty girl at his school named Leslie (Lisa Orgolini). Unfortunately, Ragman is also bullied at his school by a bunch of jocks (led by Doug Savant of Desperate Housewives fame), who all think he’s creepy and weird. These guys are pretty harsh, too, because they apparently see nothing wrong with trying to drown poor Eddie in a swimming pool.

Trick or Treat 1986 movie poster

Why does Ragman dig Sammi Curr so much? Because Curr’s music helps him cope with his feelings of subjugation. In a strange way, Curr is eerily prophetic of Marilyn Manson, who took shock rock to a whole new level in the 1990s. Not content with just scaring or pissing off parents, Manson made himself into a full-blown culture war iconoclast (the “Antichrist Superstar”) and deliberately terrorized the entire American Religious Right. In a similar way, Curr uses his music and his fanbase to declare war on society. He offers his fans a future in which “Rock’s Chosen Warriors will rule the Apocalypse,” and he promises all who try to ban his music that “We will bring you down.” For Eddie, Curr is more than just a rock icon or a hero; he’s a counter-cultural messiah who promises total emancipation from Christian society.

But all of this seems to vanish into thin air when Eddie turns on the TV one morning to learn that Sammi Curr has died in a hotel fire. The boy is instantly crushed and descends into despair, but when he visits his friend Nuke at the local WZLP radio station, Nuke gives him a special gift. You see, Sammi Curr actually grew up right here in Eddie’s hometown, and Nuke was friends with him when they were kids. As it turns out, Nuke just happens to have a demo recording of an album Curr was still recording when he died. (The album is named Songs in the Key of Death.) Nuke gives the record to Eddie, telling him Sammi would have wanted him to have it. And while listening to it later that night, Eddie discovers the album contains a bunch of backmasked messages. Then he plays the record in reverse to see what the messages are saying, and that’s when he receives the biggest shock of his life.

Ragman

Eddie “Ragman” Weinbauer and his hero, Sammi Curr.

The voice of Sammi Curr speaks to Eddie through the backmasked messages, telling the boy to do certain things while he’s at school the next day. When Eddie follows the advice he is given, he outsmarts his foes and gets them in trouble (while getting away scotch free, himself). It then seems like the two conspirators will get to realize their shared vision of a world without bullies after all; but as Curr continues to help Ragman “nail” his tormenters, he also demands the boy’s help in “nailing” everyone who ever tried to ban his music. Their Halloween pranks soon turn deadly, and Ragman realizes his beloved demigod is actually a demon. By the end, Eddie must stop Sammi from killing everyone in Lakeridge when Nuke plays Songs in the Key of Death backwards on his radio show (on All Hallows’ Eve, no less).

Now I know good and well what some of you must be thinking. Trick or Treat sounds like something that was made by evangelical Christians, right? It sounds like the entire point of the film is to demonize heavy metal and anyone who listens to it. As a devoted metalhead myself, I probably shouldn’t enjoy this film at all, should I? But consider the fact that Ozzy Osbourne appears in a cameo as “the Reverend Aaron Gilstrom,” an anti-rock televangelist. Yes, you read that correctly: Ozzy fuckin’ Osbourne plays a Jimmy Swaggart clone who preaches that metal musicians are all Satanists brainwashing our kids. (Now that’s what I call irony!) I might also point out that Trick or Treat doesn’t quite end the way you’d expect. If this were an evangelical propaganda film like Rock: It’s Your Decision (1982), Eddie would swear off metal for good after defeating Sammi Curr and “give himself to Jesus” (as they say). But after he defeats the ghost of the man who used to be his hero, what do you suppose Ragman actually does?

By gods, he plays a goddamn Sammi Curr record!

Yes, that’s right—and I think this is where Trick or Treat really shines the most. While the film is inspired by urban American myths about “backmasking” in heavy metal music, it obviously does not agree with the people who take such fears literally. Instead, the film presents metal as something that’s legitimately fun but misunderstood—and not only by parents, preachers, or politicians. Eddie Weinbauer eventually sees that Sammi Curr is a much worse bully than any of the jocks who’ve been tormenting him at Lakeridge High. But when Eddie takes Sammi down, he isn’t turning his back on metal (or even on Curr’s music, necessarily). He’s just learning to separate the art he loves from the artist who created it. The artist might be a major asshole, but it’s OK to still enjoy and take inspiration from their art.

When I was in high school, I used to worship the ground Marilyn Manson walked on. But then I learned he really isn’t the all-powerful “Antichrist Superstar” he made himself out to be. At first, this made me feel like I could never listen to Manson’s music again; my sense of disappointment was just too much. But after a while, I learned that art can still be deeply meaningful and magical even if the person who created it is not who (or what) I want them to be. I went through this exact same process with Alice Cooper and Ozzy Osbourne. In heavy metal especially, it’s easy to confuse the people creating the music with the characters they play on stage. Marilyn, Alice, and Ozzy aren’t real people; they’re bigger-than-life personas that were created by Brian Warner, Vincent Furnier, and John Osbourne, respectively. The funny thing is that once I finally began to understand this principle, I started to enjoy their music even more.

Heavy Metal

Some promotional photos for the film.

In Trick or Treat, the problem is not with heavy metal itself, but with the fact that Sammi Curr takes his hype and his stage persona way too seriously. When Eddie fights him, Sammi accuses him of being “false metal”—but in reality, Sammi is the one who is false. Part of the fun to heavy metal is that it’s basically a huge power fantasy that can be taken to some truly ridiculous extremes. What’s more, this is usually done while keeping one’s tongue planted firmly in-cheek. Sure, there are people like Sammi Curr who take themselves way too seriously; but this genre was built on the backs of guys like Coop and Ozzy, who sing about strangling people or having sex with the devil while winking at their audiences. It’s all make-believe, much like a Halloween party that never ends, and the people who take it too seriously—including both the Pat Robertsons and the Varg Vikerneses of this world—are completely missing the point.

Most people who’ve seen Trick or Treat will tell you it’s a total dud. To be fair, it is full of bloopers; you can even see the boom mike at the top of the screen at one point. (Keep your eyes peeled when Ragman answers the front door, only to find his mom’s boyfriend dressed up as Rambo on the other side. Pay close attention to the top right-hand corner of the screen!) The movie also can’t seem to settle on whether it wants to be a genuine horror film or a comedy with horrific overtones, which is something that normally tends to annoy me. But even with all that being said, Trick or Treat is very well-acted, the music is phenomenal (featuring songs by Fastway and a score by Christopher Young), and a great deal of creative effort was clearly put into it. They weren’t just trying to make a quick buck with this one; they were actually trying to make something witty and intelligent—and for my money, at least, they succeeded.

Trick or Treat is also a film that we hold sacred in the LV-426 Tradition (much like 1979’s Alien and 1982’s The Thing). It nicely reflects our own personal histories with Set. We were all like Eddie Weinbauer when we were kids; we were alienated youth, and we coped with our problems by listening to angry, aggressive-sounding music. That same music became one of our various “doorways” into Setianism, and for this reason, we treated our rock heroes like they were pillars of wisdom and virtue. Big Red had to disabuse us of this notion over time; like Ragman, we had to learn how to enjoy our favorite artists without believing in all their hype, and Trick or Treat reminds us of what it was like to go through all of that.

Alternate poster

Alternate poster art for the film.

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The Horned Pentagram

Why I prefer to display my pentagrams with two points up.

 

The pentagram is a five-pointed star in a circle, and it is the most prominent symbol associated with Paganism today; but not everyone likes their pentagrams the same. Most often, you will see them with one point up, especially around Wiccans, who are the largest and most visible demographic beneath the Pagan umbrella. But occasionally you’ll see people arrange the symbol with two points up instead, and this sometimes provokes a negative reaction. I have actually been turned away from Pagan events before, believe it or not, just for wearing this kind of pentagram myself.

The reason for this prejudice stems from 19th century Europeans, who popularized the notion that pentagrams mean something different based on how they are drawn, and that this difference is somehow “ethical” in nature. They insisted that one-point-up pentagrams are “upright,” representing “goodness and light,” while two-point-up pentagrams are “inverted,” representing “darkness and evil.” The “inverted” pentagram with a goat’s head goes back to the French occultist Stanislas de Guaita in 1897, and it was later adopted by Anton LaVey as the Sigil of Baphomet in 1966. This has led people to assume that any pentagram with two points up is “satanic,” which isn’t true by a long shot. This symbol is held sacred and drawn differently in many traditions, and it means something unique to each one. Plus, it is hypocritical of Pagans to react so strongly to an image simply because it is linked with “the devil.” We ought to know better than to think people slash cats or eat newborns simply because of something they choose to wear.

I won’t outline the entire history of this symbol, or what it means to all the different belief systems that use it. I’d just like to explain what it means to me personally, and why I prefer to display it the way I do. As far as we Setians of the LV-426 Tradition are concerned, the two-point-up pentagram is not “inverted” AT ALL. We consider it to be exactly the way it should be: right-side up. In fact, whenever we see it displayed the Wiccan way, it looks upside down to us! But that’s OK, we just chalk the difference up to personal preference. A pentagram is still a pentagram, no matter which of its points are facing up or down, and since it is circular, there is no correct “This End Up” position whatsoever. Think of it as a wheel: does it matter which direction the spokes are pointing, as long as the wheel turns?

I don’t care much for de Guaita’s “goat’s head” pentagram, but only because I prefer to keep my pentagrams “empty.” When it’s just a plain old star in a circle with two points up, it indeed resembles the head of a horned animal; but the lack of additional illustration allows for imagining any number of horned critters in the symbol, not just goats. I imagine an antelope whenever I see it myself, which makes me think of Set in His form as the White Oryx. It also reminds me of His Imperishable Ones, the circumpolar stars of the northern sky. For me, this version of the pentagram is not a symbol of “evil” or “hatred for Wicca” at all. Unlike the Sha, it does not belong just to Set or to Setians, and it has only been adopted into the iconography we commonly share since the 1970s. But it is the first religious symbol apart from the Sha that ever made me stop whatever I was doing at the time and take a closer look. I’ve always felt Set looking back at me whenever I look into it, as well. Its soothing effect on me is so great, I wear it around my neck at all times to keep me mindful of Set’s presence (except when I’m showering).

It would be fantastic if people just ditched the “upright” and “inverse” verbiage altogether; it is divisive and small-minded. I prefer to call these images the “standing” and “horned” pentagrams, respectively, so as to break away from this pattern. When a pentagram is displayed with one point up, it is “standing” because it resembles a person doing aerobics, with their arms and legs outstretched. When it’s displayed with two points up, it’s “horned” because it resembles a goat, antelope, or deer. Neither one represents anything “bad” or “evil,” and whether you prefer one or the other is simply a question of aesthetics. There is absolutely nothing to stop a Setian from wearing a standing pentagram if it pleases her to do so; and there are British Traditional Witchraft covens that use horned pentagrams to represent some of their initiatory degrees. So things are not so clear-cut between the two pentagrams as certain “experts” have been insisting since the 1890s or so, and it would be nice if more Pagans understood this.

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The Many Names of Set

Some thoughts on what several of Set’s names mean to me personally.

 

Set is a very complex deity with more names than anyone can count. We can’t even be 100% sure of how the name Set itself was originally pronounced. (All we know for certain is that it contains the consonants S-T; we don’t know which vowels might have been used.) The following is my attempt at explaining what some of Big Red’s names actually mean (or at the very least, what they mean to me personally). However, we must always remember the fact that in Egyptology, new discoveries are made every day, and sometimes an accepted theory will need to be updated or even discarded. For this reason, nothing I write here about Set’s names should be considered “definitive” or taken as “gospel.” This is just one Setian’s perspective on these various voces magicae, so take from it what you will.

As an additional note, this is not an exhaustive list of Set’s names by any stretch of the imagination. There are far too many of them for me to count, and quite a few seem impossible to translate. The following list is limited to those names and titles I actually understand and use.

Set

The most basic and well-known name for Set. It is rendered into English as sts, sth, s(w)th, s(w)t(y), st(y), or st. Its variants are clearly determinative to various Egyptian words for storms, violence, and upheaval. The Greek writer Plutarch suggested that it might mean “the overmastering” or “overpowering.” This is the most popular form of the deity’s name among contemporary Pagans.

Seth

The Hellenized version of Set; very helpful for finding quality sources about the deity in academic literature searches. (Try searching for the name Set and you’ll get results on everything from the actual god to random kitchenware.) It also happens to be homonyms with the name of the third son of Adam and Eve in the Bible (who is a totally unrelated figure). So Seth is really best used in conjunction with the additional name Typhon to clarify when one is actually referring to Set (and not the biblical Seth).

Sutekh

Pronounced “SOO-tek.” This variation of Set’s name was popular in the Nile Delta region of Lower Egypt. As Sutekh, He was equated with the Hyksos’ chief deity, the thunder god Ba’al Hadad. This led Set’s cult to adopt many non-Egyptian elements, including the Edfu tale of how He rescued Ishtar from the sea monster Yamm. I refer to Set as Sutekh most often when I pray to Him alone.

Suti

Pronounced “SOO-tee.” This is probably the closest to how Set’s name was originally spoken in Upper Egypt during predynastic times (prior to 3200 BCE). I don’t see or hear people use this variant very often, but I sometimes use it during prayers, especially in times of great need. I feel like calling Set by this name is like calling someone by an intimate pet-name they don’t want anyone else to know about (“Pookie”), which I would only suggest doing if you are already on good terms with Big Red.

Aberamentho

“Lord of the Waters,” a name that is given to Set in the Demotic Leiden Papyrus, and which likely refers to His power over the forces of chaos. Strangely, Set shares this name with Jesus Christ, for whom it is also used in the Pistis Sophia. I believe this name represents a point of intersection and dialogue between Setianism and Christianity, and it always makes me think of the Alexamenos graffito.

Ash

Pronounced “OSH.” The name of a Libyan desert god who was identified with the holy Sha animal of Set, and who was believed to guide travelers to oases. There seem to be two different theories about Ash: (1) that he is an entity distinct from Set (and possibly a gay consort), or (2) that he is an alternate form or aspect of Set Himself. It could be that the two gods are separate divinities, but that Set will also answer to the name Ash if it is ever used for Him. Either way, I can’t help but think of Ash Williams (Bruce Campbell), the protagonist in the Evil Dead movies, whenever I see or hear this name.

Ba’al

Pronounced “Buh-ALL.” An ancient Semitic title that means “Lord,” and which was used for many different storm gods throughout Mesopotamia. It was inherited by Set when He was identified with the Hyksos deity, Ba’al Hadad. I sometimes refer to the Big Guy as “Ba’al Sutekh” or even just “my Ba’al” when I pray, but it must be understood that Set is not synonymous with all the other divinities who answer to this name. (And just in case anyone would like to know, the female equivalent is Ba’alat.)

Iao Sabaoth

Pronounced “YOW SAH-BAH-YOTH.” A Greek corruption of the Hebrew Iah (from Yahweh) and tsebha’oth (“armies”), which together mean “Lord of Hosts.” The name is used in several invocations to Set in the Greek magical papyri. For me, it represents Set’s fondness of donkeys, His sympathy for the Jewish people in Late Antiquity, and His eternal vigilance against the Chaos Serpent.

Nubti

Pronounced “NOOB-tee.” Meaning “Golden One,” this name was used for Set in the predynastic Naqada civilization. It refers to the prominence of His worship in Nubt (“Gold Town”), a gold-mining desert town in Upper Egypt that later became known as Ombos. I think this name represents Set as a god of life on the frontier, who helps His people find prosperity in the wilderness.

Typhon

Pronounced “TIE-fohn.” Meaning “Whirlwind,” this name was given to Set in Late Antiquity. It belonged to a monster in Hellenic mythology, and its association with Set was originally an error; but an entire magical system was developed in which Set is identified by this name (i.e., the Greek magical papyri), and the system happens to work. Typhon also sits well with Set’s aquatic aspect, complimenting His role as a desert god. I especially like to use this name while praying to Big Red by the seashore.

The Great Longhorn

Set as the Celestial Bull. In this form, He crushed Osiris beneath His thigh, which was later amputated by Horus. Set’s thigh was then chained to the pole star, whereupon it became the Big Dipper (or as the Egyptians called it, “the Bull’s Thigh”). This aspect of Set always reminds me of the Bull of Heaven in the Epic of Gilgamesh, which also had one of its legs removed and converted into a stellar object.

Great of Strength

Set as the one god who is strong enough to put other gods in their place, as well as to fight the Chaos Serpent face-to-face. I associate this title with Set’s linear immortality (i.e., the fact that He neither dies nor rises again), which distinguishes Him from the rest of His pantheon.

He Before Whom the Sky Shakes

Set as the god of thunder and storms. I think it represents Him as this incredibly destructive force that could potentially destroy the entire cosmos at any time, but which decides to protect the world from monsters instead. Set is the single most frightening entity in existence, and yet He is on our side.

He of the Two Faces

A reference to the Secret of the Two Partners, or the idea that Set and Horus are really two aspects of the same god. This concept is depicted in Egyptian art as a humanoid figure with both the head of Horus and the head of Set, which I regard as the Egyptian precursor to the Tao. Naturally, the Secret of the Two Partners works both ways, and “He of the Two Faces” can also be used as a name for Horus.

Lord of the Red Lands

Set as the Lord of Deserts. Just as the deserts surrounding Egypt provided a “buffer” that protected the country from the rest of the world, so too does Set provide a “buffer” between our created universe and the primordial chaos. A shorter version of this title is “Red Lord,” which I use all the time.

Lord of Twofold Strength

This title reminds me of Set’s dual nature as a both an instigator of change (as seen in the Osirian drama) and a defender of the cosmic order (as seen in the execration of Apep).

Master of the Imperishable Ones

Set as the Lord of the circumpolar stars. The Egyptians considered these stars to be ancestral spirits who have achieved the same linear deathlessness that Set experiences. (Hence the term, “Imperishable Ones.”) These stars never descend beneath the horizon (unlike the Sun, the Moon, and the planets of our solar system), but are always located at the center of the sky (for those of us living in the northern hemisphere, at least). This reveals the stellar and nocturnal origins of Set’s worship.

Champion of Ra

Set as the hero who protects and defends Ra from the Chaos Serpent each night. Ra dies and rises again each day, and they are attacked by the monster while undergoing their regenerative process. If the Serpent ever succeeds in swallowing Ra, all things—including the rest of the gods—will cease to exist. When Thoth negotiated his truce between Horus and Set, part of the bargain was that Set would become Ra’s personal bodyguard. He has served Ra in this capacity ever since, and the fact that our universe continues to exist is a testament to His ultimate benevolence. This title is very important to me because it’s an important aspect of Set that most people don’t know or think about.

Son of Nut

While He isn’t the only son of Nut (Osiris being the other one), Set is the god who is most often identified by this title. This is due to the circumstances of His birth; for while Osiris, Isis, and Nephthys were all born in the natural way, Set clawed right out of the sky goddess’ womb. This couldn’t have been pleasant for Nut, but it gives Set the distinction of being the only god aside from Ra to have willed Himself into existence (according to the Heliopolitan cosmogony, at least).

Big Red

An affectionate abbreviation of “Red Lord” or “Lord of the Red Lands” that many of Set’s people use for Him all over the world (myself included).

Cloven Hoof

A term for the Christian devil that’s inspired by his association with goats. Cloven-hoofed critters are members of the order Artiodactyla, which happens to include most of Set’s sacred animals (including antelope, hippopotami, oryx, pigs, etc.). If Christians can demonize Set and incorporate Him into their version of the devil, then it’s only fair for Setians to reclaim so-called “satanic terminology” for Set. So I will sometimes call Big Red “the Cloven Hoof” in reference to His sacred animals.

Holy Jackass

A humorous title for Set that we coined right here in the LV-426 Tradition. It refers to both Set’s affinity for donkeys and the fact that He’s a hellraiser.

Prince of Darkness

Another term traditionally used for the Christian devil; it was reclaimed for Set by members of the Temple of Set in the 1970s. It might sound lurid, but it does make a certain amount of sense; Set is a prince, after all, and He does rule the northern sky and the nighttime world. I don’t use this title very much in public, but I do sometimes use it for Set when I pray to Him alone.

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Set On Screen

One Setian’s opinion on how certain media depictions of Set hold up against the real-life god. 

 

Sometimes when people find out I believe in Set, they ask me how I can possibly believe in a “fictional character” from Doctor Who or Marvel Comics. Occasionally, I’m even asked if I think I’m some kind of vampire. This really gets on my nerves, but I suppose I can’t blame the people who ask such questions. Popular culture has appropriated and taken so much liberty with Set over the years that most people only know about Him from reading comic books or watching science fiction TV shows. Inevitably, Set is always cast as a villain in these and other popular media, and this compounds the problem by leading people to think I’m some kind of “devil worshipper.” (This isn’t helped by the fact that Set is so often appropriated in Satanist legitimation strategies, wherein Satanism is re-conceptualized as something “pre-Christian”—but we’ll address that particular can of worms another day.)

There are various forms of popular media that I consider to be very Setian indeed. However, the evocation of Set in these media is most often unintentional; He is to be divined in the subtext rather than the text. In most creative works that actually mention Set by name, there is little to nothing of His actual presence to be found. Allow me to show you just what I mean.

Set in Robert E. Howard’s Conan Cycle (1930s)

Set is most often conceptualized in pop culture as some kind of “evil snake god.” This is ironic given that He’s actually a mammalian god who’s primarily associated with herbivorous artiodactyla (i.e., cloven-hoofed animals). But it isn’t hard to see where the “snake god” idea came from. By the time the Greeks were in control of ancient Egypt, Set was completely demonized by the Egyptians. They blamed Him for the decline of their civilization, and they deliberately confused Him with His enemy, the monster Apep. When the Greek writer Plutarch started writing his own account of Egyptian mythology, he identified this fusion of Set and Apep with Typhon, a monster from Greek mythology. Plutarch’s version of events was taken at face value by many of the early Egyptologists; it wasn’t until the publication of Herman te Velde’s Seth: God of Confusion in the 1970s that more accurate information about Set started becoming available. So when Robert E. Howard drew from pre-Christian mythology for his stories about Conan the Barbarian during the 1920s, the “evil snake god” idea was still in vogue.

Set is cast in Howard’s tales as a gigantic snake from outer space that was originally worshiped by a race of alien Serpent Men. He plots to cause the extinction of humanity so these Serpent Men can rule the Earth once more. I really enjoy Howard’s Conan stories, but I can’t help but laugh at this fictional version of Set. If you’re a Christian, imagine what it might be like if Jesus appeared in a story as a giant alien goat that just wants to eat everybody. That would be pretty silly, right? (I mean, Set could appear as a giant snake and eat everybody if He really wanted to; but…)

Robert E. Howard's version of Set in Marvel Comics

Robert E. Howard’s Set, as depicted in Marvel Comics

So is there anything of the real Set in Howard’s fiction? Actually, I would say yes…but not in the form of Set the Stygian snake god. I would contend that Set’s true nature is better revealed through the character of Conan himself, a nomadic anti-hero who rejects the authority of kings and priests. He’s primarily interested in his own gain, but he also rescues the innocent and defeats frightening monsters…just like Set. In one particular story, “The Tower of the Elephant,” Howard describes some of Conan’s feelings about the organized religions that are practiced in his world, and I believe his views on this subject are in keeping with Set’s:

He had entered the part of the city reserved for the temples. On all sides of him they glittered white in the starlight—snowy marble pillars and golden domes and silver arches, shrines of Zamora’s myriad strange gods. He did not trouble his head about them; he knew that Zamora’s religion, like all things of a civilized, long-settled people, was intricate and complex, and had lost most of the pristine essence in a maze of formulas and rituals. He had squatted for hours in the courtyard of the philosophers, listening to the arguments of theologians and teachers, and come away in a haze of bewilderment, sure of only one thing, and that, that they were all touched in the head.His gods were simple and understandable; Crom was their chief, and he lived on a great mountain, whence he sent forth dooms and death. It was useless to call on Crom, because he was a gloomy, savage god, and he hated weaklings. But he gave a man courage at birth, and the will and might to kill his enemies, which, in the Cimmerian’s mind, was all any god should be expected to do.

 

—Robert E. Howard, “The Tower of the Elephant”

I don’t think it’s “useless” to call on gods for help (and there are times in the stories when even Conan must do so), but I do agree that spirituality should be kept as simple and practical as it possibly can. The fact that Conan thinks this way makes sense, since he’s a nomad. He doesn’t have time to sit around and discuss theology; he only cares about what works at any given time. Who cares whether the gods are spirits, aliens, or Jungian archetypes so long as our prayers and rituals to them continue to work? And since Set’s most ancient worshipers were nomads who lived in the Sahara Desert, I believe they would have thought in much the same terms. I try to keep this attitude as well, eschewing theological arguments in favor of whatever works to get me through the struggles I must face. In this sense, I believe there really is quite a bit of Set in Robert E. Howard’s fiction; just not in the way you might expect.

Set in the Marvel Universe (1970s)

In the 1970s, the Marvel Comics Group was licensed to print its own stories based on Robert E. Howard’s Conan character, and it incorporated Conan’s world into its own unique universe. As a result, Howard’s version of Set was expanded upon and became an integral part of Marvel’s lore. According to this version of events, Set originated as one of the Elder Gods at the beginning of time, and He became evil by cannibalizing His own kind. Then, to escape from the vengeance of a younger god called Atum (who’s named after Atum-Ra), He slithered away into an alternate dimension. (Yes, this Set is still a giant snake.) Unfortunately for Set, He can’t escape this dimension by Himself, but must instead procure servants in this world to help facilitate His return. This role was originally filled by the Serpent Men of the Conan stories, but Set would also recruit followers in the twentieth century. This, in turn, would lead to several confrontations between the followers of Set and such well-known superhero teams as the Avengers.

Confusingly, Marvel Comics also created another fictional version of Set who is identified as being the actual Egyptian god (as opposed to the Stygian god). He’s a recurring villain in the Thor comic books, and most of His role in the Osirian myth cycle is kept intact. He actually tricks Osiris into a coffin, then drowns Him in the Nile and dismembers Him. Naturally, Marvel built upon this story in certain ways to integrate it with its universe (and they conveniently removed all the parts about Set defending Atum-Ra from Apep). But the strangest twist is when Seth supposedly tricks mortals into worshiping Him by transforming Himself into a giant snake and pretending to be Set (i.e., the snake god of Howard’s Serpent Men). In other words, a demonized version of Set pretends to be another demonized version of Set to gain His followers.

Seth–as opposed to Set–in Marvel Comics

Seth—as opposed to Set—in Marvel Comics.

If that doesn’t strike you as sounding completely nonsensical, let’s switch the names again. Not only is Jesus really a giant space-goat who wants to eat everybody; now there’s another, less-powerful Jesus who impersonates the space-goat Jesus so that people will worship him. (Huh?)

Set in Doctor Who (1975)

Big Red appears in the episode Pyramids of Mars as Sutekh, an alien tyrant from the planet Osiris. (Yeah.) He destroyed His own people and planet aeons ago, but then He was imprisoned by His brother Horus in a tomb on the planet Mars. When Pyramids of Mars begins, Sutekh uses His telekinetic powers to possess a guy here on Earth in the early 20th century. He then makes the guy build a bunch of robot mummies, as well as a rocket. The plan is for Sutekh’s hypnotized slave to fire that rocket straight into Sutekh’s prison on Mars. This will effectively release Sutekh from His prison, allowing Him to resume His dastardly plan of atomizing the entire universe (for no apparent reason). Thankfully, our favorite Gallifreyan Time Lord, the Doctor (played here by Tom Baker), is on the case. (And since this episode aired in 1975 and Doctor Who is still being produced four decades later, I’m sure you can guess how things turn out for this version of Big Red).

Though the writers of Pyramids of Mars clearly didn’t know (or care) that much about Set or Egyptian mythology, there are a couple of things going for this version of Sutekh as defined by the BBC. For one thing, at least they had the good sense to depict Him with the head of His sacred sha beast; I can appreciate this over depicting Him as a giant snake. For another, Sutekh is played by Gabriel Woolf, who has the coolest-sounding supervillain voice ever. (Woolf would later return to voice the character of “the Beast” in 2006’s The Impossible Planet/The Satan Pit.) If you’re going to make Set a villain, at least make Him impressive and charismatic like Doctor Who does. I for one think it would be pretty awesome if they revisited this character in a future episode.

Sutekh the Destroyer in Doctor Who

Sutekh the Destroyer from the planet Osiris (without mask)

Set in Conan the Barbarian (1982)

In this magnificent film adaptation of Howard’s Conan stories, the villain is a wizard named Thulsa Doom (played by James Earl Jones), who is actually two characters in one. Thulsa Doom was originally the name of a very different villain in Howard’s Kull stories, an undead necromancer with a skeletal face. (Actually, Skeletor from the 1980s He-Man and the Masters of the Universe cartoon is basically a child-friendly version of Thulsa Doom.) The Doom in this movie is actually Thoth-Amon, a Stygian sorcerer and priest of Set who was Conan’s arch-nemesis in the original stories. I have no bloody idea why the filmmakers decided to mix up the characters’ names like this, as it serves no rational purpose that I can see. But it doesn’t matter that much, because the movie is still awesome to behold (and Jones’ performance as “Doom” is simply amazing).

In this film, it remains unclear as to whether Howard’s Set (or any other god) actually exists or not. The film does hint that the Set cult has existed for much longer than Thulsa Doom has, but the cult doesn’t appear to have any substantial interest in facilitating Set’s return to their dimension. If anything, Doom seems to have appropriated the cult and turned it into a vehicle for his own personal gain; one might even say the cultists are far less interested in worshiping Set than they are in worshiping Doom himself. And as far as I can tell, they don’t do anything aside from practice cannibalism, throw wild sex orgies, and feed naked women to giant snakes. Honestly, this is more of a commentary on dangerous cult leaders like Jim Jones than a straight adaptation of Howard’s fiction. That being said, I actually like this version of Howard’s Set cult much better. It wasn’t necessarily evil from the beginning, nor does it necessarily follow an evil god; it’s just been twisted to fit an evil wizard’s agenda. (Though I will admit that it’s pretty damn cool to hear James Earl Jones preach about how “THE EYE OF SET IS UPON YOU!”)

I do believe there are messages from Set in this film; but as with the original Conan stories, they’re to be found in the character of Conan more than in Thulsa Doom. If anything, I think the story is telling us that Set doesn’t like it when power-hungry madmen like Doom appropriate His worship for such horrific ends, and that He actually favors people like Conan. In fact, it’s possible to interpret Conan as a warrior chosen by Set to cleanse His religion of Doom’s twisted fanaticism.

Set in Conan the Adventurer (Animated, 1993)

In the 1990s, there was an animated Conan series. In this adaptation, Set is clearly real and can actually act upon Conan’s world. (He’s even played by a voice actor!) Set appears as a gigantic talking cobra that comes from some alternate universe and that wants to take over the world. Long ago, He was banished to “the Abyss” by damn near every living wizard on Earth; but Set has His own wizard, Wrath-Amon, whose mission is to collect what he calls “Star Metal.” This is a magical glowing iron that comes from meteors and that can apparently open doorways to interdimensional worlds. This is a rather interesting idea, considering that iron (especially meteoric iron) is quite sacred to the real-life Set and is used in His worship to “open the mouths” of physical objects (which turns them into magical “interfaces” with the spirit world).

Set as a Giant Snake in Conan: The Adventurer

Enough of the “giant snake” thing, already!

Wrath-Amon is clearly based on Thoth-Amon from the original Robert E. Howard stories, but they decided to change his name and turn him into a Serpent Man (rather than let him be a regular human, like Thoth-Amon). This begs the question; just what the hell is so difficult about adapting the Conan stories into movies, cartoons, or even TV shows? Why is it that every cinematic adaptation has to mix characters up or reverse their names or give them names that are kind of the same, but slightly different? Is there a law somewhere that says they have to do this?

Set in G.I. Joe (Animated, 1985)

Believe it or not, Set—as well as Osiris, Horus, Thoth, Buto, Ammut, Ma’at, Amun-Ra, Sekhmet and Anubis—appears in a 1985 episode of G.I. Joe called “The Gods Below.” The plot of this episode concerns an Egyptologist who’s discovered “the Tomb of Osiris” and who is then kidnapped by the terrorist group, Cobra. Cobra Commander and the Baroness hope to plunder the treasures of this tomb to fund their next evil plan, and somehow the G.I. Joe team catches wind of this. Before you can say, “Raiders of the Lost Ark,” the Cobras and the Joes are running around inside Osiris’ tomb, firing bazookas at each other (and somehow not causing the entire structure to cave in on them). They do succeed in attracting the attention of the Netjeru, however, and the Joes are tested in the court of Osiris to determine their moral worthiness. Meanwhile, the Cobras encounter Set and try to trick Him into giving them the treasure they seek. They do this by pretending to worship Him, but Big Red sees right through their bullshit and stomps their asses with a powerful thunderstorm.

Set is of course described as “the god of Evil” by several characters throughout this episode, but He actually helps to stop Cobra in the end, and He does so without harming anyone. Even better, He’s depicted in His proper form as a big muscular dude with the head of His holy sha beast. He does take the form of a gigantic serpent at one point, but it’s clearly indicated that this isn’t His true form, and the context in which this occurs is quite remarkable. When the Cobras first encounter Him, Set asks if they are “worshipers of the Serpent.” They say yes, and He transforms Himself into a big snake and commands them all to kneel. They do so, and Set changes back to His sha form and gives them the treasure. Then the Cobras leave, and Set attacks them in the sky while they’re flying away. The way I read it, this whole exchange is a trick to see if the Cobras really know what it means to worship Set. By kneeling before Him while He’s in snake form, they prove that they know nothing about Him and that they see no difference between worshiping Him and worshiping His enemy, Apep. This, in turn, incites Big Red to smite the rotten bastards just when they think they’ve won.

Set in G.I. Joe

Big Red actually looks kind of cute here!

As a Setian, I think that’s pretty fucking awesome! I love G.I. Joe, and I really love this episode. Who would have thought that a simple-minded cartoon from the Reagan era would contain one of the very best representations I’ve ever seen of the Red Lord in Western pop culture?

Set in the Puppet Master movies (1989–Present)

Oh, boy.

So the Puppet Master franchise is a series of cheap direct-to-video horror films that are produced by Full Moon Entertainment, which was probably the King of direct-to-video schlock in the 1990s. Have you ever seen the TrancersDollmanDemonic Toys or Subspecies movies? They’re all Full Moon flicks, and Puppet Master, like the rest of them, barely qualifies as “horror.” These flicks are more like unfunny comedies that just happen to include healthy portions of gore and sleaze. It’s impossible to take them seriously; but as long as you don’t try, some of them can actually be pretty enjoyable. That being said, the Puppet Master movies concern the legacy of Andre Toulon, a French alchemist in World War II who discovers a magic elixir that can bring inanimate objects to life. When the Nazis kill his wife, Toulon gets revenge by bringing his puppets to life and sending them to bleed those fascist bastards dry. Then Toulon and his puppets relocate to America, where the puppets cause more trouble long after Toulon’s death.

It just so happens that one of the villains in this series is Set, who’s known here as Sutekh (as in Doctor Who). And to be honest, this has to be the most original design for Big Red that I’ve ever seen in any movie (though I don’t mean that as a compliment). Full Moon’s Sutekh resembles a pudgy BDSM Buddha with a face that looks like a skull carved out of a spoiled cabbage. He also has two glowing Florida oranges for eyes, and He even has nipples. (Nipples, I say!) Apparently, this version of Set is responsible for creating the magic elixir that gives Toulon’s puppets their life, and He wants it back so He can use it to unleash the apocalypse somehow (naturally). Of course, Sutekh is trapped in some kind of alternate dimension (I wonder where they got that idea), and He’s only powerful enough to send really tiny versions of Himself into our world. These miniature clones are called “Totems,” and they’re just about the same size as Andre Toulon’s puppets (which means we get to see lots of puppet vs. puppet action).

Set in Full Moon's Puppet Master series

Where the hell did THAT come from?

I have to hand it to Full Moon Entertainment; at least they didn’t take the lazy way out and go with the “Set is a giant snake” idea. But this particular version of Big Red is so bizarre, I can’t even figure out where it came from. At least the Sutekh in Doctor Who actually looks like Set (complete with those cute rectangular ears of His). But how the hell did they come up with the idea for a bald, naked potato-man Sutekh with glowing googly eyes? (And one who can only get hokey-looking 3-inch dolls to do His bidding?)

Set in Vampire: The Masquerade (1991)

In the role-playing game, Vampire: The Masquerade, there’s a clan of vampires known as the Setites or the Followers of Set. Unfortunately, Set is defined not as a god in Masquerade lore, but as an Antediluvian vampire (i.e., a vampire from before the biblical Flood) who has merely set Himself up to be worshiped as a god (and as an evil “snake god,” to boot). You see, Masquerade posits that all vampires are descended from Cain (i.e., the biblical son of Adam and Eve who slew his brother, Abel). According to this thesis, Set is just one of thirteen vampires that were later created by Cain’s immediate descendants, Enoch, Irad and Zillah. In other words, Masquerade is saying that an ancient Egyptian god was brought into being by a rejected biblical patriarch—and while I wouldn’t go so far as to say that I find this idea “offensive,” I do think it’s pretty ridiculous. (I don’t care if this isfiction; gods trump vampires, and Set trumps Cain.)

In the game, Setite vampires have special interests, abilities, and weaknesses that are not necessarily shared by other vampires, and this is due to their descent from Set. Their main interest is in spreading as much corruption in as many different areas of life as they can (e.g., promoting crooked politicians, funding terrorist organizations, supporting the snuff film market, selling hard drugs to little children, etc.). They also have a discipline called “Serpentis,” which is the ability to control or take on aspects of snakes. Their greatest weakness is that they are far more sensitive to light than almost any other kind of vampire; they can even be harmed by strobe lights. Apparently, their obsession with ruining the world is all part of their religious devotion to Set, whom they believe is still alive and sleeping somewhere deep in the Earth, waiting to return at some future time when He will destroy the Sun (thus liberating all Setites forever). As such, the Setites are something like the Islamic State of the Masquerade world; they’re just a bunch of dangerous religious fanatics whose ultraviolent activities don’t make any sense.

Set in Vampire: The Masquerade

I’m guessing this is what Set “really” looks like in this game.

I know there are people out there who really enjoy Vampire: The Masquerade and who are especially interested in playing as Setite characters. That’s all well and good, I suppose, and I know Big Red doesn’t really care what some role-playing game has to say about Him. But while I can forgive someone saying He was created by a Bible character, I find all this stuff about “corruption” to be pretty damn offensive. Just in case there are any Masquerade players reading this, I’d like to you to know that the real Set has nothing to do with that stuff. He might have killed Osiris, but it was a necessary event in the Creation of the universe. (How else could Osiris rise from the dead if He didn’t die first?) Furthermore, gods killing gods is very different from mortals killing mortals; we all know that it isn’t a good idea to re-enact what professional wrestlers do in our own living rooms, and the same principle applies here. I might also mention that Set only killed Osiris once; as the Defender of Ra, He rescues us all Apep every single night. So regardless of the value judgments that people might attach to Set’s role in killing Osiris, that role is secondary to His primary job as a Savior god.

Also, real-life Setites are not evil people who want to ruin the world and destroy the Sun. We’re just like everybody else; we have families, we work jobs, and we try to live as best we can. Many of us are environmentalists (especially those of us who identify as Pagans), and even those of us who walk the left-hand path are usually humanitarian to some degree at least. Do you know where this whole idea of wanting to ruin oneself and murder the world really comes from? It comes from Apep, which is the arch-enemy of Set (and, indeed, of all gods and creatures). The things that Setites are supposed to do in Vampire: The Masquerade are not Setian at all, but are utterly qliphothic instead. Now I’m not trying to launch a personal crusade against White Wolf Entertainment or anything like that, but I do think that linking Set worshipers to things like terrorism and the snuff film industry is going a bit too far. And since I’ve never seen anyone else come out and criticize Vampire: The Masquerade for doing this, I decided to go ahead and scratch this off my bucket list.

(I might also mention that the word Setite is not the intellectual property of White Wolf Entertainment. To the best of my knowledge, it first appears in E. A. Wallis Budge’s From Fetish To god in Ancient Egypt, which was originally published in 1934. In that book, Budge uses the word in reference to people in ancient Egypt who worshiped Set. Now I’ve never met a real Set follower who actually wanted to call him or herself a Setite, and this is probably because we all know it would lead people to confuse us with the fictional vampire clan. But just in case anybody out there really likes that word, I just want everyone to know that it pre-exists Vampire: The Masquerade and that it was actually coined by a real life Egyptologist.)

Set in Stargate SG-1 (1997 – 2007)

Stargate SG-1 is based on the popular 1994 film Stargate, which was directed by Roland Emmerich and written by Dean Devlin (i.e., the same team that brought us 1996’s Independence Day and the horrifically awful 1998 version of Godzilla). This is the one where Kurt Russell and James Spader walk through an ancient intergalactic wormhole machine that spits them out on another planet that looks like ancient Egypt, and which is ruled by hostile aliens that claim to be the Egyptian gods. In SG-1, Richard Dean Anderson plays the Russell role, Michael Shanks portrays the Spader character, and the evil Egyptoid aliens are given a backstory. Here the aliens are identified as the Goa’uld, a race of parasitic snakes from the planet P3X-888. They take possession of people’s bodies and then use their advanced technology to pose as gods, demanding worship.

It’s never made explicitly clear as to whether the Goa’uld are merely impersonating Egyptian deities, or if they’re actually supposed to be “the reality” behind the gods. Considering the amount of respect the show’s writers seem to have for ancient mythology (which is to say, none), I wouldn’t be at all surprised if it’s the latter. Either way, there is a Goa’uld who’s “based” on Set in this show. Called Setesh, He appears to have hidden Himself away on Earth for thousands of years, convincing different groups of people to worship Him throughout history. The SG-1 team manages to track Him down and kill Him pretty easily (in just one episode, in fact!). Considering the way Set is normally treated in fiction, it’s surprising that He would only be a “Villain of the Week” here (rather than a recurring villain who’s integral to an entire story arc). I’m not quite sure if I should be thankful for this, or if I should feel insulted!

Setesh in Stargate SG-1

At least He’s handsome!

(I suppose SG-1 deserves credit for not going with the whole “Set is an evil snake god” idea—but wait! The Goa’uld are evil alien snakes! Dammit!)

When people find out that I worship an Egyptian god, they always ask me if I’m a fan of this show for some reason, or if I’m personally offended by it. No, I’m not a fan of Stargate, and I wouldn’t say that I’m “offended” by it either. I do find it a little annoying that Pagan deities are so often depicted in fiction as evil aliens. (Stargate SG-1 even has a Gao’uld character who’s based on a Hindu deity, which seems especially insensitive since the Devas are still worshiped by thousands of people today.) You almost never see this sort of thing done with Jesus; the only exception I can think of is in John Carpenter’s Prince of Darkness (1987), where the J-Man is revealed to have been an extraterrestrial. But aside from this bit of mild annoyance, I don’t think such ideas are really that harmful; I just don’t care for them that much.

Sutekh, P.I.

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Set and the Greek Typhon—Are They the Same?

Comparing the Egyptian god Set with the Greek titan Typhon, and explaining how the word “Typhonian” became a synonym for “Setian.” 

 

The name Typhon originally belonged to a Titan in Greek mythology who appears as a giant with a hundred serpents for his heads and legs. The Titans were primordial beings who existed before the Olympians (Zeus, Hera, Aphrodite, etc.) and who were ruled by a god named Kronos. After Zeus dethroned Kronos and took control over the universe, Typhon led the Titans to war against the Olympians. But Zeus overpowered him in battle and buried him alive beneath the Earth, from whence he now sends lava and volcanic eruptions. Typhon’s mate is the gruesome snake-woman Ekhidna, with whom he sired such terrible chaos monsters as Cerberus and the Chimaera. So far, I haven’t seen any evidence that the Greeks ever worshiped Typhon (though if anyone out there is aware of such evidence, please let me know). It would seem that he was only ever worshiped against, much like Apep in Egyptian religion.

Yet the name Typhon also became strongly associated the Egyptian Set after the New Kingdom fell to foreign invaders during the 8th century BCE. Since Set is the god of all things foreign to Egypt, He was blamed for these invasions as well as for the final dissolution of Pharaonic power. So the Egyptians went apeshit and smashed all His statues, scratched His name off every monument, and killed His sacred animals in excessively cruel ways (such as pushing scared and defenseless donkeys over cliffs). They ceased to believe in Him as the Savior of Ra and equated Him with Apep instead. They also persecuted and sometimes killed anyone who either continued to follow Set or was thought to resemble Him too much (such as redheads). This eventually led to one of the earliest recorded cases of blood libel, in which Alexandrian Jews were accused of practicing “onolatry” (donkey worship), poisoning wells, and murdering people in their religious rituals. Even Yahweh Himself was equated with Set during this period, which meant that Jews and Setians were both being portrayed as something like a pre-Christian “satanic cult.”

By the time guys like Herodotus started writing about the Egyptians in the 5th century BCE, there was far more of Apep to be found in the popular understanding of Set than there was of Set Himself. So when Herodotus applied the concept of interpretatio graecia to the Egyptian pantheon (identifying foreign people’s gods as Greek gods under different names), he identified this fallacious Set/Apep hybrid with the Typhon of his own culture. Once he made that link, Greco-Egyptian syncretists started calling Big Red Seth-Typhon, and people who continued to worship or “resemble” Him became known as Typhonians. This was a term of hostile derision, and classical Egyptians, Greeks, and Romans used it in much the same way that Christians continue to use the terms “Satanist” or “devil worshiper” today.

I’m not a big fan of interpretatio graecia; I understand why it made sense to the Greeks, but I’m skeptical of it myself (especially in this case). It doesn’t take an archaeologist to know the Egyptian Set and the Greek Typhon are almost nothing alike. Sure, there are certain superficial similarities; both became scary “bad guys” for a while. But until the 400s BCE at least, it had always been an accepted part of Set’s arc that He is a villain-turned-hero. He also had a proper priesthood of His own and was honored by the Pharaohs; this clearly wasn’t the case for Typhon, who never enjoyed any kind of state-endorsed following.

If Set and Typhon truly are identical, then Typhon’s family in Greek mythology should be like a “second family” that Set has apart from His Egyptian and Canaanite relatives. Theoretically at least, this would mean creatures like the Chimaera and Cerberus are fellow Children of Set, and I should feel some kind of spiritual resonance with them. Theology is not a science, of course, so there’s really no way for anyone to be 100% certain of such things; but aside from the complete absence of any lore to this effect, I’ve never acquired any gnosis that would support this idea. Ekhidna and Her frightening brood just don’t feel like they’re related to Set at all; and if Set is indeed sterile and incapable of siring any children (as He is described in Egyptian mythology), how the hell could He procreate with Ekhidna anyway? While mythology should never be taken literally, there does need to be some internal consistency at the very least. If Herodotus is correct and Set and Typhon are really the same guy, I would expect there to be stories of Typhon being childless, of Set fathering gigantic monster children, or perhaps even both.

However, I must admit I am guilty of using the name Typhon in reference to Set all the time. Isn’t this hypocritical? Aren’t I blaspheming Big Red by using a name that was given to Him out of hatred and fear? Shouldn’t I just stick to His Egyptian names and tell Herodotus to get the hell out of Dodge? And shouldn’t I have more respect for myself than to accept being called a Typhonian?

It has occurred to me that there might be other Companions of Set out there who strongly dislike my use of the Typhon moniker. (And if that’s true, I thank you all for being extremely polite to me, as no one has written me any angry emails about it yet.) But I actually have several very good reasons for sometimes referring to Set as Typhon, despite everything I’ve explained above.

1. It has historical precedent.

There are numerous spells in the Greco-Egyptian magical papyri that invoke a “Typhon” who is not in keeping with the Greek Titan’s character at all. The “Typhon” of the paypri is strongly associated with iron, donkeys, the color red, the Great Bear, and Hellenized corruptions of Hebrew God names. He’s even called “hater of the wicked” in one particular spell, which isn’t like the Greek Typhon at all. Furthermore, many of the spells involving “Typhon” are not malefical (death curses) but are incantations for love, protection, and other varieties of good fortune. Absolutely none of these things are consistent with the Greek Typhon at all—but they are consistent with Set as He was worshiped prior to the Late Period.

Also, I can personally attest that these spells carry quite a lot of firepower and that Big Red responds favorably to them. If He didn’t like being called Typhon, one would think the spells would fail utterly (or have deadly results). There are many different theories as to why magic works, of course, and not all of them are predicated on the assumption that anything “supernatural” is truly happening. But even if the Greco-Egyptian spells are just exercises in self-hypnotism, their Typhonian procedures are clearly modeled on the Egyptian god Set (and not the Greek monster Typhon).

2. The word Typhonian pretty much belongs to Set anyway.

This term simply didn’t exist prior to the emergence of Greco-Egyptian syncretism. When it was first coined, it was used to describe animals that are sacred to Set (including donkeys, fish, hippopotamuses, etc.) and people who resonate with Him. So while it might be taken from the name of a completely different entity, Typhonian has always been used specifically for things that pertain to Set. (This is probably due to the original Typhon never having a cultus of his own.) In fact, we can really just go right ahead and say that Typhonian is really just a synonym for Setian.

3. Typhon is very useful when interacting with academic hair-splitters.

In academia, the Egyptian Set is often called Seth-Typhon to distinguish Him from the biblical Seth (the third son of Adam and Eve). The latter plays an important role in certain heretical forms of Judaism and Christianity that developed during the latest years BCE and the earliest years CE. These belief systems are often called “Sethianism” or “Sethian Gnosticism,” and some scholars will refer to Set as Seth-Typhon to distinguish Him from this other religion. They also tend to use the word Typhonian for things that pertain to Set, while I more often see Sethian used in discussions of Gnosticism.

In a way, this actually kind of stinks; Big Red gets the short end of the stick while an obscure Bible character (who’s barely even mentioned in the book of Genesis at all) gets preferential treatment. But be that as it may, using the name Typhon in conjunction with Set’s is certain to dispel any potential confusion with Sethian Gnosticism (or at least among academics).

(I should note that some of Big Red’s followers think He and the Gnostic Seth really are the same entity. I respectfully disagree with this idea myself, but that’s a discussion for another day.)

4. The meaning of the name makes perfect sense.

Typhon literally means “whirlwind” in Greek, which ties in with Set’s role as a god of wind and storms. The name is also linked to our modern word typhoon, which is the Pacific Ocean’s equivalent to a hurricane. Therefore, the name doesn’t actually mean anything insulting in and of itself; if anything, it’s a totally valid description of Set’s jurisdiction in nature.

5. It describes one of Big Red’s much-forgotten aspects.

Remember how Set chopped Osiris to pieces and fed His penis to a fish? It may seem ironic that a desert god would be associated with an aquatic animal, but it happens to be the case. Fish—especially those of the Mormyridae or elephantfish family—were held sacred to Set in areas like the town of Oxyrhynchus. Hippopotamuses are also sacred to Him, and they are aquatic animals as well, as they spend most of their time in water. So based on Egyptian religion alone, Set most definitely has an aquatic aspect, and Typhon is the perfect name to describe Him in this context.

6. It is a reminder of the evils of blood libel.

The name Typhon was given to Set by people who feared Him so much that they were willing to harm innocent animals and people to drive Him away. It may seem blasphemous to call Him by this name for that very reason, but I find that it’s a good way of reminding myself about the evils of blood libel. The Burning Times, the Salem Witch Trials, the Holocaust, the “Satanic Panic” of the 1980s; these were all just different versions of the same thing that was done to Setian and Jewish people in Alexandrian Egypt. Remembering these horrific events is a huge part of my spirituality (especially the Satanic Panic, since I was actually alive while it was still happening). So reclaiming the name Typhon as a positive term for Set and myself is much the same for me as reclaiming a word like witch is for Wiccans.

7. Set has never killed me for using it.

I’ve been referring to Set as Typhon for a very long time now, and He’s never given me any grief about it. I’m pretty confident that if He didn’t like me using this name for Him, I would already be dead by now.

8. Who cares about the Greek Typhon’s feelings, anyway?

I’ve never met a single person who’s ever claimed to worship or even care about the Greek Typhon in and of himself (and trust me, I’ve searched for such a person far and wide; if there are any Hellenic reconstructionists out there who worship Typhon and who happen to stumble upon this sermon, I do hope they will share their thoughts on this with me). Whenever I meet anyone who works with something they call “Typhon,” the entity they’re experiencing always turns out to be Set upon closer inspection (except in the case of Kenneth Grant, whose “Draconian female” Typhon strikes me as being a misidentified version of the hippo goddess, Taweret.) If the original Typhon has no cult to speak of, and if the Greeks themselves gave his name to Set, then why should I care? Does anyone even care that I’m talking about this?

So are Set and Typhon one and the same entity? Pan-culturalists might say “Yes,” and hard polytheists might say “No”—but who can ever know for sure? All I know is, Set and Typhon don’t seem the same to me, but this doesn’t mean the two figures can’t share the same name. If there can be more than one “Seth,” why on earth can’t there be more than one “Typhon?”

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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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My Understanding of Magic

A brief explanation of my perspective on magic, what it is, how it works, and how it dovetails into my theological views.

 

My understanding of actual magic—not to be confused with mere illusionism or stage magic—hinges on the Egyptian concept of heka, which more accurately translates to mean “divine speech.” This refers not only to literal verbal communication, but also to the use of visual arts and ritualized performances to “activate the ka,” which might be compared to our Western construct of the “astral body.” Virtually any form of dramatic self-expression can be a work of magic within this context, provided that it arouses your spirit and directs it toward some kind of goal. This goal can be operative (to heal the sick, ward off negative energy, divine omens), initiatory (to reach a higher state of consciousness), or even devotional (to honor a deity or ancestor). For the ancient Egyptians, everything from casting love spells to invoking the Creator themself was a magical working that bridged the gap between this world and Duat, its spiritual counterpart. Indeed, magic is fundamental to all spirituality and religion, for even Christian worship services involve “activating the ka” (feeling “the Holy Spirit”), implementing “divine speech” (using key language from the Bible), and accomplishing some kind of goal (feeling close to Jesus).

Naturally, most people scoff at the idea of anyone believing in magic here in our contemporary times. But there is a difference between thinking magic is effective and thinking it is necessarily “supernatural.” I wholeheartedly believe in gods, ghosts, and other worlds, and many of the rites I’ve worked have wielded some truly eerie results. But I also accept that there are completely rational explanations for the things I’ve experienced, and I neither ask nor expect anyone else to forgo such conclusions. This is because I know magic can work regardless of whether the supernatural actually exists apart from the human imagination or not. If you invoke a blessing for someone, it might or might not have any effect on that person in the real world; but it will at least vent your desire for that person to be OK somehow, fulfilling a profound emotional need that all the logic in the world can never appease. So even if it’s all just a bunch of autohypnosis (which isn’t necessarily true, either), magic can still have efficacy and practical value today. Whether it works on objective reality or even on the subjective realities of others is completely secondary to whether it works on your own psyche and spirit. Its true purpose is to change and empower the user, not to directly affect literal changes on the physical world like in some epic fantasy movie.

These principles apply to my theology as well. I can’t claim to be absolutely 100% certain that Set (or any other deity) is really a sentient entity that actually hears my prayers, or that has ever directly intervened in my life to change it for the better. But apart from my personal belief that these things are true, I can at least be certain that if I had never uttered a single prayer to Set, I would never have met some of my closest loved ones; I would not have the family I now cherish; I would not have developed my current career; and I would never have hoisted myself from the cesspool of domestic abuse in which I was raised. None of this proves that Set is objectively real by any means, but it does prove that His influence in my life is strong enough for it not to matter whether He is or isn’t. And to this extent at least, He and the other divinities I’ve encountered are all quite real enough for my purposes. Whatever the gods actually are or however they are to be explained, they are certainly effective, just as magic can be effective whether it is truly “paranormal” or not. So I will just go right ahead and keep praising Big Red until the cows come home!

Inevitably, we must address the issue of magical ethics. The same principle behind the blessing spell I described above will also empower a hex or a death curse to work in much the same way (i.e., on the “sender,” not necessarily the “recipient”). Many Pagans warn that doing this is “unethical” and will unleash terrible consequences upon the user(s), no matter how much the intended victim(s) might deserve whatever is wished upon them. I have even heard someone tell rape survivors they have no business casting hexes on the men who assaulted them, for fear of violating some lofty cosmic law.

This is all bullshit.

Burning effigies and sticking pins into dolls are perfectly healthy ways of vindicating yourself emotionally without actually harming anyone—especially if we’re talking about an injustice as heinous as rape. If the helpless can’t use magic to win some kind of control back over their lives, then what fucking good is it? The true concern here is not whether hexing or cursing violates any external standard, but whether it violates your own conscience. Let’s say you do cast that death curse on your tormentor, and he actually dies that painful, humiliating death you wished upon him. Would this “coincidence” spook you and make you feel guilty? If so, that guilt might eat you up inside, causing your curse to backfire. But if you are certain your enemy’s synchronous destruction in reality would only enhance your well-being, I see no reason you should not enjoy yourself by destroying them symbolically and nonviolently in a spell. Doing so is always preferable to actually harming that person in real life, and you may even find that it alleviates your desire to harm them, helping you re-focus your energy on more productive goals.

Some people describe such procedures as “black,” “dark,” or “left-handed” magic, but this too is bullshit. You don’t have to devote yourself to a dark god to cast a hex whenever you might need to, and you also don’t have to curse people all the time to worship a dark god. Setians enjoy the additional benefit of execration rituals, which work in much the same way, but which target non-human advarsaries like the qliphoth or even the Chaos Serpent instead. Nine times out of ten, a good execration will help you cast out that negative energy better than any death curse would. Nevertheless, there are situations in which a curse might be exactly what you need; so while the option of magically destroying your enemies should never be taken lightly, there is no sense in completely ruling it out either. Furthermore, the term “black magic” is a colonial racist inference to African magical traditions, and “dark magic” lacks any room for nuance. (Is it “dark” to invoke Set the nocturnal storm god in a blessing, or to invoke Sekhmet the fiery solar goddess in a curse?) As for the “left-hand path,” this is a Tantric term for heterodox ritual practices, and it is rendered somewhat meaningless when removed from its original context. (Is it “left-handed” to praise Lucifer in a room full of Satanists?) I prefer to describe hexes, curses, and other such procedures as destructive magic and leave it at that, without assigning any color- or usability-coded value judgments to the matter.

Mind you, there are many “LHPers” (for lack of a better shorthand term) who enjoy my work, and I am very fond of those I know personally. I also have mad respect for writers like Kenneth GrantMichael Aquino, and Don Webb, each of whom has been a major inspiration to me personally. So it is not a matter of wanting to distance myself from LHP culture at all. It’s just that I deviate from most LHP ideologies I know about, which all seem to emphasize worshiping the self over any external deity. I believe everyone is really a living demigod, so the idea of worshiping yourself actually makes perfect sense to me; but there is no reason a polytheist can’t also revere other divinities in addition to their own. Yet I have found that speaking of devotionalism in LHP circles can stir up just as much controversy as discussing hexes can in Wiccan circles, and for reasons that are equally small-minded. I worship and pray to Set as if He were a real sentient being (again, regardless of whatever He might actually be in objective reality, which is irrelevant). If being a devotional polytheist is enough to disqualify me from fitting beneath the LHP umbrella, then so be it—but I’ll thank you not to insult me by labeling me as “right-hand path” (the Tantric term for “orthodox” practices), since I do not have a single “orthodox” bone in my entire body.

Some writers argue that “magic” should be limited to purely operative and/or initiatory spiritual practices, and that devotional rites are more properly consigned to the less interesting category of “religion.” But even stargazing, lifting weights, or walking a dog can be just as magical or “spirit-activating” as casting a spell to heal your friends, attract a mate, or call down your Holy Guardian Angel. So how can anyone truly legislate what is or isn’t “magical” for others? All spiritual practices are magic of one kind or another, from the obscure Rite of the Bornless One to the common Sunday Mass; so there is no need for anyone to poo-poo other people’s preferences here. Maybe you’re the kind of person who doesn’t care about religion and who only cares about astrology or Tarot reading. Or maybe you’re the kind of person who doesn’t care about fortune telling, and who just wants to pray to some ancient fertility goddess. Either way is enough to justify calling yourself a witch (or the cultural variant of your choice).

I’ve engaged in operative and initiatory projects over the years; I’ve worked spells, gone on vision quests, blessed people’s homes, execrated negative energy, etc. But the bulk of my craft has always been devotional in nature. There is nothing more magical to me than invoking Set at the shore of Lake Superior, out among the trees and the bears, with the Big Dipper twinkling in the sky above and the waters below, and for no other reason than just to enjoy Big Red’s company.

The Egyptian hieroglyphic for heka (“activating the ka”).

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