Setianism Predates “The Left-Hand Path”

On the conflation of all Setian spirituality with what Western occultists call “the left-hand path,” and why this is problematic.

 

Setianism is often linked with something Western occultists call “the left-hand path,” and this is thanks largely to the Temple of Set. The term originates from Hindu and Buddhist Tantra, in which the Vama Marga or “left-handed way” to enlightenment involves practices that most orthodox believers find “repugnant” (e.g., erotic mysticism). Helena Blavatsky, the founder of Theosophy, appropriated the name for virtually any kind of Western occultism she didn’t like. Ever since then, it has been evocative of “black magic” and “devil worship.”

Most other occult writers followed Blavatsky’s example in this respect, including Aleister Crowley, the founder of Thelema (who was himself regarded as a “brother of the left-hand path” by many of his contemporaries due to his controversial views and practices). The first Western writer to actually adopt the left-hand path (or “LHP” for short) as a positive self-label was Kenneth Grant, a protege of Crowley’s who developed his own “Typhonian” school of Thelema. Grant’s philosophy hinges on Set rather than Horus, and it has much to do with contacting qliphothic forces from alternate universes via the use of sexual magic. Grant was also a UFOlogist and a pioneer in Lovecraftian occultism, or the use of H.P. Lovecraft’s “Cthulhu Mythos” in actual esoteric practice. His use of the term “left-hand path” is probably the closest I have seen among Western sources to the original Tantric idea of the Vama Marga (perhaps because Grant studied under an actual Indian guru, Ramana Maharshi).

The next Western writer to adopt the left-hand path was Anton LaVey, founder of the Church of Satan. LaVey conceptualized the LHP as being like a carnival huckster’s take on spirituality: it’s all “make-believe,” we are just meat machines that cease to exist upon death, and there are no actual gods or spirits to hear any of our prayers. But at the same time, there is nothing wrong with all of this “make-believe” so long as it enriches and empowers the “believer.” In LaVey’s worldview, conventional religions (“the right-hand path”) use made-up dogmas to control the masses, while the left-hand path uses such fantasy to liberate the individual instead. Success is measured not by any spiritual advancement, but by purely material milestones. For example, a successful actor or musician would be considered far more adept at “the black arts” than someone who can recite each of the Enochian Keys by heart, but who flips burgers at McDonald’s for a living.

Michael Aquino, the founder of the Temple of Set, developed a radically different construct from that of LaVey. His LHP is a more metaphysical process of “immortalizing the psyche,” with the potential achievement of a sentient afterlife being the ultimate goal. For Aquino and his followers, the problem with conventional religion is that it stifles the powers of the mind, leading to a total dissolution of consciousness after death. If people just ditched such creeds and started exercising their minds intellectually and metaphysically, they’d have a much better chance of becoming discarnate alien intelligences when they die—or so the theory goes. If there is one element of LaVeyan belief that Aquino maintained, it is the claim that authentic LHPers do not actually “worship” any of the forces they evoke in their magic (including Set Himself). Aquino’s take centers on worshiping one’s own highest potential to the exclusion of anyone or anything else that might (or might not) exist.

Many additional Western LHP perspectives would bloom over the following decades, including those of Zeena and Nikolas Schreck, Michael W. Ford, and Thomas Karlsson. Notable themes that many sects seem to share include autotheism (the worship of oneself); an indiscriminate affinity for so-called “dark” forces (like conflating Set with Apep); an intersection of Gnosticism, hedonism, nihilism, and/or anti-cosmicism; and a rather unfortunate disposition toward right-wing sociopolitical ideologies (from American Libertarianism to outright National Socialism). The very worst example of this would be the Order of the Nine Angles, whose supporters are known to be terrorists and white supremacists. Even among LHPers who do not entertain such views seriously, there is an ugly tendency to glorify fascist imagery (often because it is “shocking” or “cool”), going all the way back to Anton LaVey’s inclusion of “Might is Right” (a racist diatribe by Ragnar Redbeard) in 1969’s The Satanic Bible.

Though many Setians identify as “left-hand path,” not all of us do. Part of the confusion on this stems from the fact that many Setian writers are either Temple of Set members or adherents to some variation of its philosophy. This has always been something of a “pet peeve” for me personally, because I think the word Setian really belongs to Set. It is understood that not all Setians will believe or practice the same way, as Set loves variety and freedom. But if any particular theme should be the one common element that we all share, that theme is and must be SET HIMSELF—not the Book of the Law, The Nightside of Eden, the Satanic Bible, or the Book of Coming Forth By Night. This does not preclude Setians from sharing additional interests; but Set was there long before Vama Marga, Typhonian Thelema, LaVeyan Satanism, the Temple of Set, or any other LHP variant, and a person doesn’t need EITHER of those things to know Set and walk with Him. To claim otherwise is to ignore the fact that Setianism began over five millennia ago as a North African animist and polytheist tradition in which our Namesake was clearly revered and venerated (as He deserves to be).

Which returns us to the matter of right-wing ideological influences in Western LHP circles. This rather disgusting tendency is made all the more revolting whenever it happens to manifest among so-called “Setians.” For one thing, Set is an Egyptian god, and the Egyptians were a North African people. They were PEOPLE OF COLOR, you idiots. We owe everything to them, too; there is not a single white person who would be walking with any of the Netjeru today if it hadn’t been for these blessed ancestors. So if you pay lip service to an Egyptian god while supporting white supremacy, you are a fucking idiot and you deserve to have your ass handed to you. Furthermore, Set is the absolute WORST mascot for any kind of fascist cause, given that His hatred for authoritarianism is purer than venom. We call Him “He Who Commands the Riot” for a reason, you know. Set is a god who smites other gods whenever they need smiting, and He has even less patience with human megalomaniacs. If you take His name but support tyranny, you are no Setian; you are just a servant of Apep in disguise—and we Setians know just how to deal with Apep!

Not today, Apoop!

I’m willing to bet that most of Set’s people today are probably Kemetics or some other flavor of devotional polytheist—or at least, that is how it looks across the internet (which is probably a better reflection of things today than it was in the 1990s). We devotionalists have just as much right to Set’s name as any Thelemite, Satanist, or Chaos Magician (if not more), and I for one insist on taking ownership of the term Setian for this reason. LHPers are welcome to walk with Set too in my book, but they are NOT welcome to look down their noses at those of us who actually revere and venerate Him as the ancients did. And those who favor any of that “might is right” fuckery should just pack their shit and leave. It seems egregiously stupid that I should even have to say this to anyone, but y’all are just gonna have to live with the fact that there are Setians who worship and pray to Set, who are animists and polytheists, and who believe in trying to make things better for everyone, not just ourselves.

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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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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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