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 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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