The Praying Mantis God of Ancient Egypt

An interview with the Kemetic and Neo-Pharaonic artist Setken regarding his new film, The Praying Mantis God of Ancient Egypt, in which we meet another of Set’s theological colleagues: the Netjer Abyt.

 

For today’s adventure, we have a very special guest: the artist Setken, who creates Neo-Pharaonic art inspired by the ancient Kemetic or Egyptian Netjeru. Setken’s artistic range extends beyond painting, even though the latter is his primary focus. This includes singing and writing in a band, physique and physical display escapades, as well as writing and acting. This magnificent servant of the Netjeru has just released a mini-documentary about the praying mantis god of ancient Egypt, which concerns a little-known Netjer by the name of Abyt. Listeners can view the film for free at vimeo.com/setken, and I encourage everyone to check it out!

And now, without any further ado, please welcome Setken!

G.B.: Setken, welcome to the show!

SETKEN: Thanks for having me on, G.B., it’s an honor!

G.B.: I just want to say, I’m not just blowing steam up your ass; you really are one of my favorite artists. All of your paintings that you have been producing that I’ve seen over the past—what has it been, a decade?

SETKEN: Yeah, it’s getting close to a decade now.

G.B.: Yes, especially the Winged Set piece. That one has always been my favorite.

SETKEN: It’s still one of my favorites, and I was just remarking to a friend tonight that I don’t know how I actually created that piece as early on in my painting career as I did, because it was way, way ahead of what I was doing at the time.

G.B.: What year was that?

SETKEN: That was 2013, so it’s coming up to its seven year anniversary. But that is still one of my favorite paintings.

G.B.: Well, I guess that opens the door for what we’re really here to discuss tonight: a very well-unknown ancient Egyptian deity by the name of ABYT.

SETKEN: Right!

G.B.: A god whom, of whom, or for whom I should probably say, you have just recently directed, produced, and released a short documentary entitled The Praying Mantis God of Ancient Egypt, right? I just want to thank you for making this thing in the first place, because the end product is just amazingly educational and spiritual to watch.

SETKEN: Well, thanks. And thanks for your kind words about my paintings before as well. I didn’t quite get that in. This was a first crack at trying to find new ways to show my art, which is part of how the documentary came out. It’s just I’m happy with the way it’s turned out, you know; there are some rough edges to it. But as a short experimental documentary, I’m happy with how it turned out. I’m glad that you, and now more people, have started to see it as well—that you and others are starting to find some value in it.

G.B.: I’ll probably mention this multiple times as we speak; but for the listeners, this video is currently available at Setken’s vimeo.com website. Is that correct?

SETKEN: Yeah, if you go to Vimeo.com and search for Setken, all of my public videos are there. Alternatively, you can go to my website, and at the very bottom of the page, all of my social media contacts are there along the social media bar at the bottom. There’s like five different socials. You can have a look at it, and that will lead you to the documentary one way or the other, because it’s really all I’ve been raving on about at the moment.

G.B.: Oh SHIT, what was my next question?

[Both speakers laughing.]

SETKEN: You started to ask about Abyt, and because He is unknown and everything, we got distracted.

G.B.: Oh yeah. So, can you talk a little more about this sort of multimedia approach that you are taking?­

SETKEN: Sure. So I gave my one and only exhibition at the beginning of 2018, and we made a documentary about that as well (called Neo-Pharaonic). I should pronounce that right, probably [laughs]. That was the name of the exhibition, and we did a 15-minute documentary about that with thoughts are on that Neo site, if people are keen to see that. And whilst I’m glad that I did it, I came away with a feeling of dissatisfaction that this is the only way to show my art, because it’s the accepted way. And that made me think about the history of art and how it’s traditionally being used and shown, and all of that stuff that I’m sure you would probably explore by going to art school, which I never did. And I came out of it feeling, it’s unacceptable that this should be the only way I get to show you my work—which is representative of, you know, hours and hours of creative time, and you know, is painted from the depths of my souls. So I started to think more and more about how there could be different ways to show what I’m doing, and even perhaps use the paintings as a kind of springboard to move into something else; and that’s how it began.

SETKEN: I started to write short film scripts where the paintings were pivotal in the storyline—which you know, was a short five-minute film, so there wasn’t that much of a big storyline to go with it—but it was very visual. But then I came up against the thing of, well to fund something like that is going to be, you know, a small fortune just to get it the basics filmed. Having someone to film it, directors, lighting, and all that sort of stuff. So those projects got left on the sidelines; but fast-forward to pandemic times, and I’ve got the Galaxy Note 10.1 camera phone. It’s more of a camera that it is a phone, with a multimedia station, and I’ve had that for quite a few months and had already worked out that the filming capabilities on this thing. It’s pretty amazing because I had been filming my paintings and putting them up on my Patreon for people. Give them, you know, a good look at them whatever. So, I guess that sat in the back of my mind, and then when Abyt mantis documentary came into being, it was almost like, you know, “The gates are open now! Off you go!” And I did pretty well with all the filming for it myself.

SETKEN: I wrote the script; one piece had to be filmed outdoors. So a friend filmed that for me; but apart from that, all of the raw material I had already made; I didn’t have to wait for funding or someone else to come in and help me. I got a simple editing suite thing that I downloaded, you know, and went from there. And then to pull the final products together wasn’t very difficult at all, because I had yourself, who contributed the music, and my friend Ptahmassu, who contributed the transliterations of the texts. Then I got my friend Christian at Spacetone to do the editing, and it was complete. So the process was a lot smoother and slicker out of necessity, because the other thing is, of course, you can’t have too many people around when you’re in a Stage Four lockdown helping you to make a film. So that’s how that came about.

G.B.: I have to imagine this simpler process is also a little bit more affordable?

SETKEN: Yeah. Yeah, you know I already had the lights—the colored lights that I used in the video. I already had them because I use them in my ritual space. I already had the plinths made up from the Neo-Pharaonic exhibition, you know, the plinths with my cartouche logo on it. I love it. I have a mantis on it.

G.B.: By the way, that was probably my favorite shot in the whole film!

SETKEN: Oh, yeah, it’s cool, huh? That particular mantis is really what I use in place of a statue for Abyt on my altar, because there are no statues of Him yet. So I basically got that from a kid’s playset, painted it up in this super cool black paint, which I just happened to have sitting here that this guy in England makes. It’s meant to be a take on vantablack, which is the black that they use to paint airplanes and things so it looks like you’re looking into a black hole.

G.B.: Well you’ve impressed the hell out of me, because I thought—I thought that was an actual bug in that shot!

SETKEN: Oh, really? Really? Right up to me just saying this now?

G.B.: Yes! Oh my goodness. Either you are really good, or I’m just totally losing my eyesight or something, because I thought it was real!

SETKEN: That particular statue’s been on my altar for some time. So there’s been a lot of heka around it. And besides that particularly amazing black, I gave it those purple eyes, and there’s all kinds of magic associated with that. So it has got a kind of life to it. I’m glad that it had that effect! Maybe everyone else thinks that, as well. That’s really cool! That could be the highlight of my day actually!

The icon of Abyt featured in Setken’s The Praying Mantis God of Ancient Egypt (2020). (I STILL say it looks real!)


G.B.: Oh good! Well that that opens the door nicely to start discussing just who is Abyt, exactly? So I gotta be honest with you, I didn’t even know there were any mantises in Egypt!

SETKEN: Yes. So the Egyptians were very keen observers of nature, and besides wall art, with their depictions of life in the swamps that feature different insects. The Abyt mantis was actually used as a glyph in one place in particular, which was King Seti I’s tomb, and it is a piece taken from The Book of Opening the Mouth. It’s probably not a surprise that people may not be aware of it, because that tomb—until very, very recently—has been closed for about 50 years, because it’s one of the most spectacular tombs as far as tomb decoration goes in Egypt (if not one of the most), and it was deteriorating very badly. So the Ministry of Antiquities closed it permanently, but then they reopened it within the last 18 months—very, very recently they’ve reopened it. And this particular line that features the mantis—which I’ve made a sketch of, that goes all the way through the documentary, is on the poster, and is featured in a colorized version at the top of my painting, Kemetery—it is basically that glyph. And it’s unusual because they’ve emphasized the long neck, which I comment about in the documentary, and because of the habits and the way the creature behaves. Some Egyptologists have remarked that it’s strange we haven’t heard more about the deity [Abyt] than we have, just by its freaky nature alone, and the way it looks like it’s praying and looking at you and everything else.

SETKEN: The other two texts where Abyt is mentioned; His name is spelled out with the hieroglyphs and the determinatives that had been used. I’m studying Egyptian hieroglyphs at the moment. So, a determinative is a glyph which will be placed at the end of a sentence to let you know what is being referred to, in case that’s unclear. They have the two texts that I have mentioned in the documentary; in one case they actually used the pintail duck, and in another this wingless fly—which doesn’t appear very much anywhere else. I believe there are some versions of the text that actually include Abyt Himself, because of course The Book of the Dead was translated over and over inside coffins and things at different stages of Egyptian history. So there would have been scribes who perhaps used different glyphs for different things, rather than translating the exact original over time. But I think this points to the fact that Abyt may not be as easy to “pin down” in one form as, perhaps, some of the other Netjeru. We know that from the glyphs that were used, there are references to Him “flying,” to Him being able to “lift up something,” to something “going away from the ground,” and to something “making its way.” And the reason for this is because it’s not spelled out in the texts exactly what He is. Egyptologists have argued over who and what He is; are the Egyptians referring to a deity? Is it saying that this creature, in and of itself, is the thing that’s showing the person past the king’s house and into the realm of the gods?

SETKEN: Well, we know as mystics and people who have an interest in the numinous that the ancients wouldn’t have just simply listed something mundane in relation to the Divine, and I think the key text here is the one from King Seti I’s tomb—the one from The Opening of the Mouth, where the actual mantis itself is used as the determinative of the word itself in the phrase. And the phrase is, “I have seen my Father in his every form; the form of the Abyt mantis.” Well, the king is divine and born of the Divine. So to suggest that he isn’t would be, you know, a Kemetic blasphemy!

G.B.: Right!

SETKEN: So I think that text is a qualifier as far as, you know, conservative Egyptology goes. My experiences that have developed with the deity over the years paint a picture of Him and who and what He is that is, you know, entirely related to my experience. But I do find synchronicities here and there that crop up, and I also note that the ǀXam tribe in South Africa had a praying mantis god called ǀKaggen. His primary form was a praying mantis, but He also had many other forms, and they emphasize that with Him.

G.B.: Just going back to the glyphs; so I can see the mantis, the bee and the wingless fly, but then they throw in that duck, and it’s like, “Whoa!”

SETKEN: Yeah, I’m still getting to the bottom of the duck thing as well. I’m not sure exactly why the duck is there in that context.

G.B.: This does remind me of another thing, though, that I meant to mention to you earlier, and which would take some further investigation on my part to really delve into it (and I’m not exactly sure how practical that would be). However, I know that Kenneth Grant wrote often about the symbolism of the bee; bees are apparently very significant in the Typhonian Tradition of Thelema for some reason. I’m not the best person to explain why, I’d have to do some further research. I don’t know why that suddenly made me remember that, though.

SETKEN: Now that you’ve given me that thread, I’ll investigate it. The bee is definitely one, like when [E.A. Wallis] Budge did the translation of The Opening of the Mouth. After he did the translation or transliteration, he said it is unclear; he said on the one hand it could be read as mantis; on the other hand, it’s bee; and hornet is in there as well. They also had glyphs for all three of these creatures, so for some reason it’s deliberately unclear. I feel the energy of the bee is much more aligned to Abyt than perhaps the duck, and I’ve noticed that when I paint Abyt in profile, with His head on the side, you could look at that and think it was a bee. Yeah, so I’ll have a look at what Kenneth Grant has written about the bee—which, as I mentioned in the documentary, is pronounced byt. Not Abyt, just byt—and of course, we’re speculating about the vowel sounds; we can only guess at that because the language has been lost. But the bee is one of the determinatives that’s used whenever the king’s name is written. The bee and the reed basically means you are talking about the Pharaoh.

G.B.: Mantises, bees, hornets, wingless flies…and ducks.

SETKEN: Yeah. If you look into the ǀXam tribe (I hope I’m saying that right), [their mantis deity] ǀKaggen is tied up with other creatures as well, like mammals. This isn’t the first time a Netjer would have many forms of many creatures associated with it like that. Look at, for example, Set—we would say that the Sha is most likely His most identifiable and predominant form; but then there is, of course, the oryx and the gazelle, the pig, and panthers, etc. I had a lot of fun painting Set in His anthropomorphic oryx form in one of my paintings

G.B.: Oh, yeah. I remember that! I love that painting! I only just fairly recently made the connection myself on that point—the fact that Set is also kind of another “Horned God.”

SETKEN: Yeah, yeah, probably the original one!

G.B.: Back to Abyt though. I’m just curious; do we wonder—do we know if it is a male deity or a female deity, or maybe something different?

SETKEN: I think, because in one of the texts specifically, the male is referenced in that one—“I have seen my Father in His every form.” And I sense, when I connect with Him in meditation or whatever, that that He is male. I sense that.

G.B.: When did you first become interested in Abyt, exactly?

SETKEN: So I keep diaries of my dreams, and I will write my dreams down after they happen, and also meditation experiences. And I noticed this praying mantis being, showing up in various contexts. So I was unsure at that stage who and what He was, because I couldn’t find Him attested to in the literature that’s been uncovered over time from ancient Kemet. So the relationship more or less continued with me not knowing. I think that was the way it had to be in the beginning, and to a large degree, it’s the way that it has to be now. I think Abyt is tied up with the higher mysteries of life, and when we get involved with Him, we’re looking “under the skirt” of reality and creation and evolution and beingness—and you may not be prepared for what you’re going to see.

SETKEN: So the more I was seeing and interacting with Abyt in that state, I guess the more voracious I became in my investigation. The Egyptologist, Linda Evans, is the only one who has written an academic paper about the praying mantis in ancient Egypt, and it’s a good paper. I wrote to her about it and didn’t get a reply (which, you know, happens). She made reference to a praying mantis coffin being found, an anthropomorphic coffin, with a mummified mantis inside. And I thought, that’s weird! Because until very recently—let’s say 18 months—we hadn’t found any mummified insects. We know that, for example, the scarab is sacred to Khepera. We found them now—they unearthed a tomb where there were mummified scarabs.

G.B.: That is so cool!

SETKEN: It is so cool! So, I went on a quest to try and find pictures of this mantis coffin and mummy, and I couldn’t find it anywhere. Since Bernard Bruyère is the Egyptologist who discovered the coffin back in 1929, I wrote to the museums in Brussels—because he’s Belgian, and that’s where all his work ended up. Could not get an answer. I tried Google Search, I tried everything, and occasionally I would notice things that happened with the phrase I read earlier (“I have seen my Father in His every form”). That finally came about, after years of looking for it, via Ptahmassu. He’s got access to the hardcore original translations of these texts as they were found back in the early 1900s. So he was able to come up and find that for me. This is how my research seems to go—I’ll have a period of intense looking for something; you let it go, and then all of a sudden, something emerges. And this is what happened with the mantis coffin.

SETKEN: I get this magazine called Nile. And even though their delivery of the magazine is rather random—it seems to show up whenever they feel like sending it out.

G.B.: Oh my goodness! [Laughing.]

SETKEN: It doesn’t seem to be what I’d call, erm…

G.B.: A “periodical”?

SETKEN: [Laughs.] It’s more like an annual at the moment! This company, a book shop in France called Meretseger Books, advertised in there. I thought, “I’m going to write this guy and see if he knows.” His name is Francois, the gentleman who runs the shop, and he wrote back to me. So that was something new, someone writing back is always nice! Unfortunately with academia, if you’re writing to academics, they’re going to be looking for the letters after your name or the institution you’re studying at, and if you don’t have those, they probably relegate you to “this is not worthy of my time” or “I don’t have time to do it,” or whatever.

SETKEN: So anyway, this guy wrote back and said, “Can you give me more information—was this ever published in a periodical?” So I looked and went back to Linda Evans’s paper, and it did have references to where [the mummy coffin] was, because academics have to do that. So I sent [this information] back to [Francois], and within a day, he had sent me an image and a PDF of the mantis coffin, which is anthropoid. The head looks mantis-ish and human at the same time, and then inside of it is, you know, a disintegrated mantis mummy. And when I saw that, the Abyt documentary was born at that very moment, and I just had to do something with it. I just had to. I was in a particularly raw creative state because you know, I’m not working at the moment, because we’re in Stage 4 lock downs. I’ve not been working most of the year, and I just had this open space to do what I wanted to do—and that’s how it came about.

G.B.: That’s such an amazing story; it’s really cool that fellow answered you and sent you the photo. I’m still getting over the fact that they mummified mantises, too!

SETKEN: Right! Now we know they mummified other creatures that we don’t necessarily associate with deity; but is it because we just haven’t associated them with deity yet? Are we waiting for a text that will have the Netjer determinative to say, “Well, this is a deity”? In fact, the Kemetics associated all kinds of creatures with all kinds of gods. So perhaps we need to rethink how the ancients were thinking about deity per se; that’s my take on it.

G.B.: Well it makes sense, and it seems only logical. I mean, a religion in which so much of nature is considered divine; why would they draw the line at mantises, you know? Like there are cats and cows and falcons and ibises and jackals. Why not mantises too, right?

SETKEN: Right. It just doesn’t make sense. Well, I think further down the track, because they are making more discoveries in Egypt. According to archaeology and Egyptology, they’ve only uncovered not even a third of what they know is there. And as ground-penetrating radar gets more and more sophisticated, we’re likely to get a much larger picture of ancient Egypt. And as that emerges, I guess the question is going to be, will Egyptology as a science be able to keep up? Because it’s not changed a lot in the 200 years that it’s been around, and they’ve got some pretty set ideas about how they look at that part of our ancient history. I’m not saying [their ideas are] necessarily wrong; but when a cross-disciplined scientist comes into the fold, I guess like all the disciplines they don’t want to share their work with anyone else that’s going to perhaps challenge their own findings, as we’re talking tenure and publications that need to be changed, et cetera.

SETKEN: But we all know the story of John Anthony West’s friend Robert M. Schoch, who just happened to accompany him on a trip to Egypt and, as I understand it, didn’t have a particularly big interest in Egyptology itself (apart from the general fascination of it that most people have got). He’s standing at the Sphinx enclosure, and he’s a geologist, and he just happens to look at the walls and realize that the dating of the Sphinx is quite likely wrong. It’s thousands of years older than what was thought. So they did test it, they went and tested the enclosure and the Sphinx itself. And the conclusions (according to geology) is that that thing was carved originally about 10,000 years ago. Traditionally, Egyptology will not accept that—they want to align the Sphinx with the reign of King Khufu. So that’s an interesting case in point.

G.B.: So earlier you mentioned ritual space, and I believe that this is the same space in which you filmed the artistic sequences of your film. Is that correct?

SETKEN: So I recreated my ritual space in my outdoor shed, because it’s larger and I could set it up to look more visually appealing. But I used the plinths, the incense, and the lights to get the same kind of feeling that I get in my shrine room. I basically converted my shed into a studio to get those ritual sequences.

G.B.: That is amazing—and also something that I really kind of want to do! [Laughs.]

SETKEN: Yeah, you’d be good at it!

G.B.: So what’s next? What kind of projects are you thinking about exploring next?

SETKEN: Most of the paintings I’ve done this year are studies, which means they are preparations for the final version of that work. So the three studies I’ve created so far—and there’s a fourth one coming—will eventually go into their final painting form. So that’s the next step. There’s more paintings coming featuring sacred texts—they tend to generate paintings on their own. I’m thinking about recreating two of my earlier paintings that, for some reason, I’m either unhappy with (in the case of one), and just that I think that I can tell more of a story in the case of the second (by doing another version of it). So that more on the painting side as far as video projects go.

SETKEN: I’m doing a new video project for Nehebukau, who is one of the snake gods of the Kemetic pantheon. Your listeners will be interested to know that you’ve done the music for that as well! We’ve not really mentioned this, you did the music for the Praying Mantis God of Ancient Egypt documentary.

G.B.: Oh shit! Yeah, I forgot this whole time. [Laughing.]

SETKEN: I didn’t even think about that, but it will be a video project about Nehebukau, rather than a documentary. It’s something a bit different. Then, I am revisiting my painting, Winged Set, which is turning seven years old this year. So there’s a project related to that.

G.B.: Lucky number seven, huh?

SETKEN: Yeah, lucky seven, right? I want to put The Praying Mantis God of Ancient Egypt onto a DVD, with all the uncut ritual sequences. This will be special, just for patrons. So I’ll put that on the same DVD, and that will be something to give to future patrons, you know, who join up whenever, and you get sent that. I also want to go back to Egypt.

G.B.: To revisit some favorite places, or to explore something new?

SETKEN: To explore something new. They’ve reopened Seti I’s tomb, of course, so I’ve got to go there. I want to go back inside the Red Pyramid, just because I have to do that. But I’m also interested in creating a new painting of a mausoleum in Cairo of one of their famous politicians, whose name is Saad Zaghloul; I’d like to paint him and his mausoleum. So they’re the reasons I’d like to return to Egypt.

G.B.: That’ll be a trip!

SETKEN: Yeah, and I guess I want to do a painting about Charles Musès, who created this thing called the Lion Path, and who is famously known as discovering a branch of mathematics. He was also an Egyptologist, and he discovered the Pyramid of King Ameny Qemau (whose name has come up a couple of times recently in Egyptology because they discovered a stele that references him). There was a collapsed pyramid that was unopened—that belonged to someone who they’re pretty sure was his daughter.

G.B.: Yeah, all these new discoveries and stuff. Going back to what you were mentioning earlier, just real quick, about Egyptology changing and what-not. That is one of the things I’ve always loved about Egypt, is that it just seems like for every one thing we reasonably know for sure about what they believed and did, there are countless other things that we don’t. And with new information coming in every couple of decades or whatever, and we’re going to have some new information.

SETKEN: Yes, because new discoveries happen. You would think this would add to our library of how we think about the ancient Kemetic world; but if that library is constantly filtered through an academic lens, but only wants to see something one particular way—or if it’s being filtered through the lens of Victorian England, or if it’s being filtered through the lens of another religion—where they are going to get the same kind of answer? I guess the point I was making back then is, bring on all the new discoveries! But let’s also look at them as ways that we can expand how we’re thinking about the ancients, rather than drawing a conclusion that is just more of the same to bolster up what we originally thought about them. [Kemetic] culture is so rich, it has a much richer yield than perhaps we’re currently paying full attention to anyway.

G.B.: I agree with you completely. Well, I suppose it’s only right I should mention a little bit of my process of how I composed the music for your film real quick!

SETKEN: I don’t think “real quick,” I mean it’s an important part of the documentary! So please, tell us about it!

G.B.: Not too much to it, really; it’s kind of like how you were mentioning earlier with your Galaxy phone. I have a Samsung something or other—I don’t know, I’m no good with this shit. But it’s also got like some pretty nifty apps on it and stuff. I found a variety of voice changers, a variety of synthesizer apps. Earlier this summer, when I first put together the Dua Sutekh EP; well first of all, that whole thing was the result of pandemic-mania. Living in quarantine and not having enough shit to do, and one day playing around with voice changers and changing my voice over and over again. And that’s all [Dua Sutekh] really is, just my voice over and over again on each layer, manipulated to sound like it’s not.

SETKEN: I didn’t know that! 

G.B.: And with Mantis Religiosa, the piece I did for your film, I didn’t quite keep it that “pure.” I used a couple of different synthesizer apps that I found that replicate old-school sequencers, like the kind of shit where they don’t even have any keys on the instruments, you’re just playing with dials and everything, you know? I started with that to create the two basic structures of the piece, because it really ended up being divided into two. I’m not quite sure why, it just ended up that way. That was the baseline for the piece, and then I went over that with my voice changer technique to make it a little bit, you know, rawer and fuzzier. I really wanted to capture the idea of fluttering insect wings, but couldn’t quite find the right noise samples. So I just had to kind of get creative and make it myself. But that’s not to say that there is no sampling at all, because I did decide to sample from one of my very favorite horror movies: Quatermass and the Pit from 1964. A fantastic British horror movie about—you guessed it—mantises from outer space! Mantises that genetically modified our primate ancestors to produce the witches and warlocks that roam this planet today. That’s some pretty heavy shit!

SETKEN: I love that film, and I only recently watched it because of your reference to it on In the Desert of Set. I really liked that film, and I know it’s very much the era of crappy BBC effects and everything, right?

G.B.: But still a great story.

SETKEN: It was a great story, and I liked what they did with that sequence where they hooked up whatever that device was that could go back in time, and there was that mass of insect people overcoming the planet and all that stuff flying on the sand coming to Earth; I think it was genius. But what you did with that; I was going to ask you. The very beginning of the track, where the words Mantis Religiosa are spoken—I didn’t know that was you, and I actually thought it sounds like Vincent Price. Is that what you’re going for?

G.B.: With a lot of help from the voice changers!! [Laughter.]. Thank you! It’s sort of like a little homage to Alice Cooper’s Welcome To My Nightmare, the sequence with the Black Widow and Vincent Price showing off his spider collection. Which, by the way, if you ever find a mummified—if you ever find evidence of mummified spiders, don’t tell me, okay? Let’s just draw the line there!

SETKEN: [Laughing.] Okay. I’m pretty sure there is a spider glyph.

G.B.: There would have to be, I’m sure; I know there’s scorpions.

SETKEN: Definitely, and there is a scorpion goddess, who is a rather powerful being. But yeah, I’ll find out if there’s a spider glyph, just for you.

G.B.: Oh God. [Laughing.] Okay, last question. so I’m sure that there are relatives of my family—or somebody’s family—watching this documentary at home, and they’re wondering, “What the fuck is there a mummy stripping? What’s with that stripping mummy?”

SETKEN: That’s a very good question. So I referenced earlier that I’d made some short film scripts because I was looking at ways of trying to tell the story of paintings in a more creative way, and I have a mummy costume in my repertoire of costumes that I’ve held onto—from when I used to be a stripper. And the mummy costume was a particularly good one that didn’t get a lot of use because in fact it was part of—I did this mini Rocky Horror Show version, okay, and the idea was that I would do two characters from The Rocky Horror Show and two or three songs. From that, whilst hosting an event—and I did actually have a Halloween event that I got hired for years ago when I was living overseas; I think I’ve actually got that on my Vimeo and I tried to make it private, but I’ve got it as part of my profile for Star now, which is an actor’s website—because you know, we need to think of all of our skills and different ways of making money when you’re not allowed to work in a gym because the chief medical officer thinks it’s a breeding ground for bugs.

SETKEN: So anyway, I digress; I had the mummy costume as part of Rocky’s costume for The Rocky Horror Show, and I thought I could use that mummy because the concept has not been lost on me—looking deeply into the symbolism of ancient Egypt as a cocoon for the soul to rise out of. So I’ve used it as something along those lines in the documentary. And the idea of projecting alternating pictures of the coffin and the mummified mantis because you realize that’s what’s going on while all of that is happening right now. Having that projected onto my body onto the mummy wrappings as I go emerging into something else.

SETKEN: I’m interested in a era of photography and video from the 50s and 60s called the Athletic Model Guild, and it was the beginning or perhaps the precursor to bodybuilding. Bob Mizer, the guy who created it, was interested in the male physique as I am—not only as an artist, but as an amateur bodybuilder, I guess, even though I have professionally competed and stuff like that. I still consider myself an amateur, because I’ve only recently got back into some sort of shape. And I guess wanted to show it off, and was able to weave that into the artistic interpretation of what I was doing with the documentary. And so I think people will definitely look at that thing—What the fuck is this? What’s going on with this? But I think I’ve weaved it in a way that is kind of interesting certainly. It was fun for me to do. But if you’re looking for the inspiration for it, look up Athletic Model Guild, and that should answer some of some of those questions! Of course, I’ve used my makeup and stuff that I use whenever I’m public as Setken, so that of course was in there too. That wouldn’t be used in a legit AMG shoot if I was ever to recreate one. But anyway, these are the things we do with artists to take, you know, different takes on things.

G.B.: That’s really fascinating. As you know, I’ve been working with all kinds of public domain footage from yesteryear. I have like a curious fascination with old footage I guess. Not sure if “industrial films” is like the right term, but like, films that were made not necessarily as like to tell a story or whatever, they’re just showing some aspect of culture or whatever that you don’t really see much anymore, or at least not everywhere today. Is that something that still happens today with the Guild?

SETKEN: Bob Mizer passed away some time ago, and he left all of his work—a considerable library of negatives and prints and film—and that’s created the Bob Mizer Foundation, which you contribute to so they can hire people to catalog and preserve these negatives and films and prints because they really are telling an interesting story about the male physique. And what we now know as bodybuilding was starting to emerge into Western society and culture after perhaps not being considered for thousands of years. The Greeks were really the last ones to really look at, and specialize in, the male form to the degree that they did. So it’s interesting to look at it through that lens. There’s also the looking at it through the lens of homoerotic male art and looking at the male body in a sexual context, which of course was taboo then, and is to a degree now, as well as how we consider the male body in the current context and the sexualizing of it. So all of that was there in what he was doing, and there is some sordid stuff because the models that he had—he had this system of “hieroglyphics,” for want of a better word, that he used to make notes to himself about who the model was and whether or not they might they may be interested in sexual persuasions that were considered illegal at the time. So there’s that stream as well, which is interesting.

G.B.: What a horrible way to live.

SETKEN: Yeah, he was fascinating, and his is an art form in and of itself. You look at his art and you say that’s Bob Mizer photography, the same way that you might recognize a [Robert] Mapplethorpe painting. He had a style happening, you know, right from the get-go.

G.B.: That’s really cool that you were able to work that influence into this. Quatermass, mantises, the male physique, and the—say it again? The AMG?

SETKEN: Yes that’s right, the Athletic Model Guild.

G.B.: This is such an eclectic web of ingredients!

SETKEN: I think so! I very much got told earlier this year by one of the Netjeru that it’s time to get your stuff out there. Like do it, do it, and I’ve held back on a lot of artistic stuff at my own over the years for whatever reason. So this documentary was in some ways a crude manifestation of a lot of things coming together in one. I’m happy with the way it turned out.

G.B.: Well, thank you so much once again for joining me here tonight, Setken it’s been a real treat to have you onboard. Thank you for being my first and only guest on the podcast so far! And thank you so much for the opportunity to contribute to your project. I just really loved the film, and I hope that everyone out there listening will go watch it on Vimeo.com and perhaps give some consideration to visiting your Patreon account as well!

SETKEN: Yes, that would be cool! Every bit helps. I do keep Patreon-only content for people; you want to reward the people that have gone that little bit step further to invest in what you’re doing. I’m very grateful for my patrons, I’m very grateful you asked me to do this podcast, and I’m grateful for your amazing contribution to the documentary.

G.B.: Thank you! And on that note, Dua Abyt, and SET BLESS!

SETKEN: Dua Abyt! Dua Sutekh!

And to close out today’s adventure, here is the aforementioned track—Mantis Religiosa—that I composed for Setken’s film. Again, listeners can view The Praying Mantis God of Ancient Egypt at https://vimeo.com/setken, and if you enjoy this little tune I’ve cooked up as an offering to Lord Abyt, you can stream and download Mantis Religiosa for free at gbmarian.bandcamp.com.

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Taweret—Or, When God is a Hippopotamus

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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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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The LV-426 Tradition

Some background on the unique Setian coven in which I became a priest.

 

There are three other Setians with whom I’ve been privileged to work some truly life-changing magic over the years. These individuals know who they are, but out of respect for their privacy, I will only identify them here as Blackwynthe Tonester, and Sister Bean. To walk with Set is a solitary path, even when you’re part of a group, and not everyone in my circle will always agree with each other on everything. But the point isn’t that we always believe or practice the same things. The point is that we are each drawn to Set in our own ways and for our own reasons; that we’ve crafted a number of effective rituals and spells together; and that we’ve all witnessed the same eerie results these procedures can yield. Years have passed since we first declared ourselves a coven back in 2003; we’re spread far apart from each other now, living in our own areas and focusing on our own priorities. But even if we never meet in person to hold another ritual together again, we will always be connected with each other somehow.

That “somehow” is Set.

In 2007, we started referring to our collected rites as the LV-426 Tradition for the following reasons:

  • The 1979 sci-fi/horror film Alien is a prime example of what we call “the monster film as mythos,” and we wanted our name to memorialize the film for this reason.
  • The Tonester and I were both living in the Bible Belt at the time, and Ripley’s struggle against the Alien was a perfect metaphor for how we felt about living there.
  • Being a couple of smartasses, we wanted a name that was far too cumbersome for repeated use in brief conversation. (Say “LV-426 Tradition” six times in the same paragraph to see what I mean!)

The Setians of the LV-426 Tradition

From left to right: The Tonester, Sister Bean, Yours Truly, and Blackwyn.

In case you’ve never seen it (and shame on you if you haven’t!), the original Alien is about these astronauts in the distant future who follow what seems to be a distress signal of unknown origin. They make their way to a desolate planet called “LV-426” in their star charts, where they find a crashed alien spaceship with a dead crew and a shit-ton of weird, leathery eggs for its cargo. One of these eggs hatches, unleashing a horrific beast that reproduces itself by raping one of the men (!). Due to a breach in protocol, the creature enters the next phase of its life cycle back on board the ship, and the movie then becomes a slasher flick in outer space. The last person standing is Ellen Ripley, played by Sigourney Weaver, who emerges from the chaos and the carnage to become the first female action movie hero.

1980's Ad in TV Guide for Alien (1979)

The Alien strongly resembles Apep, that timeless arch-nemesis of Set. Designed by the Swiss surrealist, H.R. Giger, its biology makes no sense. How can it see without any eyes? Why would anything evolve to have two mouths—one inside the other—when just one mouth is simpler? How can its blood be so corrosive that it will burn through any metal, but without being deadly to the creature itself?1 Nothing in nature can exist like that, and the same is true of Apep. It’s described as lacking any sensory organs—it has neither eyes nor ears—yet it’s somehow able to locate and paralyze its prey with a hypnotic gaze. It’s also described as “breathing by means of its own roar” and “living by means of its cries,” which means it doesn’t require any sustenance for its survival; it just eats things to make them suffer (Manassa, 2014). Both Apep and the Alien are monsters that can only exist in nightmares, that operate in total defiance of natural law, and that would be absolutely poisonous to any ecosystem in which they managed to thrive.

Ellen Ripley, on the other hand, is a perfect stand-in for the Red Lord. She is the outsider or “black sheep” among her crew, the only one who takes her job seriously, and a real stickler for protocol (even refusing to let Captain Dallas [Tom Skerritt] board their ship when she learns he has an infected crew member in tow). Compare this to the other female crew member, Lambert (played by Veronica Cartwright), who complains, screams, or cries helplessly throughout the film. Then there’s the fact that Ripley dresses and behaves like a man. One of Set’s many lovers is the Ugaritic goddess Anat, who is usually depicted in men’s clothes (Patai, 1990), and whom Set is said to find especially attractive for this reason. Given how much He enjoys smiting monsters like the xenomorph, and given how partial He is to androgynous ladies like Anat, it’s hard for me not to imagine Set cheering for Ripley from upon His throne behind the Great Bear. (Plus, going through so much trouble to save Jones the Cat must surely score Ripley some additional points with Bast, Ishtar, Sekhmet, and other like-minded goddesses of feline goodness.)2

Anat, an Ugaritic goddess

Anat, an Ugaritic goddess who is one of Set’s many consorts.

Alien is also filled with various references to sexual anatomy and the reproductive process. The ship’s computer is called “Mother”; the astronauts look like they’re being born when they awaken from their cryogenic sleep chambers; the tunnels of the derelict craft on LV-426 resemble giant fallopian tubes; and the xenomorph’s head is shaped like an erect penis (which always makes me think of someone being raped in reverse during the infamous “chestburster” scene).3 Ripley even has her final confrontation with the beast in her underwear,4 and she must also contend with “Mother,” which insists on keeping the Alien alive for future study (even at the cost of the astronauts’ lives). So a secondary conflict rages between Ripley and the computer, which cares more for the survival of the “child” than it does for the “parents.” This is especially intriguing given that Set is thought to cause abortions and miscarriages (te Velde, 1977). As His cinematic avatar, Ripley must further alienate herself from her society by “aborting” the gestating life form her superiors have deemed more important than herself (Cobbs, 1990).

H.R. Giger was obviously influenced by the New England horror writer, H.P. Lovecraft; but I’m fairly certain he was also inspired by a British occultist named Kenneth Grant. Once a disciple of the infamous Aleister Crowley, Grant was obsessed with what he called the “Tunnels of Set,” which are supposed to be these astral wormholes that loop back and forth between various alternate universes. He was the first occult author to suggest that H.P. Lovecraft was a “sleeping prophet,” and that monsters like Cthulhu and Nyarlathotep are real beings that actually exist in some other dimension. (He beat the Simon Necronomicon to this punch by at least a decade, if not longer.) Given this, I’m sure Grant’s ajna chakra or “third eye” probably exploded wide open if and when he ever got around to seeing Alien for himself. And if H.R. Giger wasn’t specifically thinking about the “Tunnels of Set” when he first envisioned the winding, cyclopean corridors of that ghost ship on LV-426, he sure as hell could have fooled me.

H.P. Lovecraft, Kenneth Grant, and H.R. Giger

From left to right: H.P. Lovecraft (1890–1937), Kenneth Grant (1924–2011), and H.R. Giger (1940–2014).

Though we tend to share Grant’s enthusiasm for the “many-worlds” interpretation of quantum mechanics, my coven mates and I have zero interest in contacting any of the horrific fauna that H.P. Lovecraft envisioned for his lurid tales. We instead emphasize execration, or the use of magic to repel negativity and misfortune from people’s lives. This is functionally similar in principle to casting a death curse on someone, save that the target of your spell is Apep, the true source of all evil, and not any human victim. As far as we’re concerned, walking with Set isn’t about getting chummy with Lovecraftian space monsters; it’s about ferociously defending the autonomy of all sentient beings.

The idea that we must be “ferocious” in this regard comes from when the Tonester and I lived in the Bible Belt during the early 2000s. We were constantly under siege from “Rapture-ready” teachers, classmates, employers, cops, and politicians. We couldn’t even go for prayer walks in the woods without being harassed by people who thought we were “worshiping the devil.” After a while, it began to feel as if we were actually trapped in some hostile wilderness, with a very real monster coming after us. That monster wasn’t an actual xenomorph, of course, but Apep; and instead of literally trying to eat us, it was trying to eat our hearts from within. But Set is merciful; He brought us together in that wretched place, against all odds, and He blessed us with each other’s company and support. Then we met Blackwyn and Sister Bean in Michigan a few years later, and the rest is history. Each of us is proof for the others of Set’s providence, and Alien is an excellent parable for our own private quests against the Serpent.

Training to be Ellen Ripley

But execrations are not the only staple of our practice; there’s also our weekly Sabbat ritual, which is observed on Friday nights. We enter a darkened room that has been prepared with an altar, an image of Set, and some red candles. We recite our standard invocation together, and then we take turns praying to Set informally, as if He were just a regular person in the room with us. Usually this means discussing our hopes and fears, our best and/or worst moments of the week, or something along those lines. When one person finishes their prayer, they turn to the next person in sequence (which is always to the left) and say, “If there is anything you wish to say to the Red Lord at this time, please feel free to do so.” And if the next person has nothing they wish to pray about, they keep silent so the next person can proceed. Once everyone has finished, we break out the beer, blast some heavy metal, and chat with each other into the wee hours, sometimes not adjourning until daybreak. The exchanges we’ve shared during these late night Sabbat talks are some of the most profound meditations I’ve ever experienced in my life.

Some other things we’ve done include a spell for protection during sleep, an astral pilgrimage technique, and a matrimonial ceremony that was used for my wedding in 2012 and for Sister Bean’s in 2015. There’s also an initiation ritual that’s used for inducting new members, but this procedure is known only to those who pass our vetting process and are invited to join. (Considering there have only been four of us since Set first struck me with His black lightning in 1997, you can imagine how often this happens.) Our liturgical calendar includes not only our weekly Sabbat but also Hallowtide (October 31–November 2), Walpurgisnacht (April 30), and Friday the Thirteenth (on which we celebrate Set as the catalyst for Osiris’ resurrection and Horus’ conception). Importantly, we have no leader or “high priest/ess”; each of us is fully qualified to administer our rites to anyone who might need them, and all of our group decisions (including whether to initiate any new brothers and/or sisters) are made by unanimous vote.

Set's Charge to LV-426 Clergy

Apart from the above, we Setians of the LV-426 Tradition may each entertain any additional beliefs or practices we like. Some of us revere other sacred figures along with Set, like Buddha, the Norse god Odin, or the Babylonian goddess Ishtar. Some of us even celebrate Christmas or Saint Patrick’s Day. Our eclecticism is rooted in Set’s New Kingdom role as an ambassador between the Egyptian gods and other pantheons. Just as He can roam between alternate realities and canoodle with alien divinities, so are we free to mix the old Kemetic wisdom with just about anything we find useful, from American colonial witch lore to Zoroastrian demonology. Some outsiders may find this permissiveness toward religious dogma repugnant, but we couldn’t care less; Big Red is the only justification we need.

It’s been a while since we last met as a coven to keep the Sabbat, execrate our inner demons on Walpurgisnacht, or offer up a feast of watermelon to Big Red on Friday the Thirteenth. I can’t speak to how often the others may or may not “keep up” with these practices nowadays (though I must admit it has been hard for me to do so consistently, myself), but none of us has ever been expected to make such a commitment anyway. It’s the fact that we even did these things at all—and the magic we shared when we did—that really matters. And there’s always the possibility that somewhere down the road, a fifth initiate of LV-426 might present him or herself to us, setting a whole new cycle of ritual work into motion. For now, all LV-426 alumni are off exploring other proverbial worlds, but always with Set’s Iron in our spines.

The LV-426 Sigil

The LV-426 Sigil

Notes

1 I’m well aware that in Ridley Scott’s prequels to this film—Prometheus (2012) and Alien: Covenant (2017)—it’s revealed that the xenomorphs did not evolve naturally, but were genetically engineered as a kind of biological warfare. This still doesn’t explain why their blood, which can burn through any damn metal you please, doesn’t just burn right through their own bodies as well.

2 Some viewers—including Big Steve King—complain that Ripley’s quest to save Jones the Cat is a “sexist interlude” that undermines her role as a feminist character (King, 1983). I’m a proud cat parent, and if I were in Ripley’s position, I’d risk everything to save my fur baby too. (Ten bucks says if Jones were a dog, nobody would be bitching about this.)

3 The “chestburster” scene is quite similar to the story of Set’s birth according to Plutarch (1970). He recounts that Set was not born at the normal time or in the normal fashion, but that He impatiently exploded forth from the belly of His mother, the sky goddess Nut. It’s tempting to think the screenwriter, Dan O’Bannon, might have encountered this story at some point while writing the script for Alien.

4 Some viewers—again, including Mr. King—complain that this final sequence “sexualizes” Ripley too much (King, 1983). I have to say that as a straight dude, this scene has never once made me think, “Ooooh, look at the naked chick!” Instead, it always makes me think about this one time I had to fumble around in my basement naked to get some clean clothes out of the dryer, only to be greeted by a huge spider that made me piss myself. In other words, it makes me identify with Ripley rather than objectify her, and I for one applaud Ridley Scott for framing the scene in that way.

H.R. Giger's Alien

References

Cobbs, J.L. (1990). Alien as an abortion parable. Literature / Film Quarterly, 18(3), 198–201. Retrieved on October 5, 2017.

King, S. (1983). Danse macabre (2nd edition). New York, NY: Berkley Books.

Manassa, C. (2014). Soundscapes in ancient Egyptian literature and religion. In E. Meyer-Dietrich (Ed.), Laut und leise: Der gebrauch von stimme und klang in historischen kulturen (pp. 147–172). Bielefield, Germany: Transcript Verlag.

Patai, R. (1990). The Hebrew goddess (3rd edition). Detroit, MI: Wayne State University Press.

Plutarch (1970). De Iside de Osiride. Cardiff, Wales: University of Wales.

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

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