Songs from a Setian soul.
Today’s episode is not a proper sermon as such, but a collection of brief melodies composed by yours truly. I don’t consider myself much of a musician, but I hope you will enjoy. Praise be to Set!
The times we consider most sacred in our coven.
Today I figured I’d discuss the major holidays observed by Setians of the LV-426 Tradition. These aren’t necessarily the only holidays we celebrate; some of us also celebrate things like Christmas, Mabon, or even St. Patrick’s Day. But these particular times are the ones we all agree are most important to our shared religious calendar.
The LV-426 Sabbat
The word Sabbat is used differently in many faiths. In LV-426, we use this term in reference to a weekly night of worship that has most often been observed on Friday nights, but which can really be observed on any night of the week. The idea is to meet with Set for a Sabbat every seventh night, in any case, and whenever possible.
Our Sabbat procedure is simple. We use the basic rite that is offered in the very first episode of this series (Setianism: A Brief Introduction). When we get to the part when we speak our wills to Set, we discuss all the high and low points of our week with Him, speaking informally. If more than one person is present for worship, each attendee takes a turn at doing this.
Once everyone has had a chance to say what they wish to say, we throw on some heavy metal and break out the booze, chatting through the night until dawn. Set is asked to remain present if it pleases Him to do so, and He guides the conversations we have during these sessions. There is no other situation in which I am quite so comfortable, happy, or grateful as when I am meeting with Set and my brothers and sister in Him for our Sabbat.
It’s been several years now since our coven has been able to keep the Sabbat together as a group; but the procedure can be followed in a solitary context as well. You don’t even need the booze or the heavy metal; all you really need is to pick a night that works best for you, then try your best to spend some time with Set on that same night every week. How you choose to spend or structure that time with Him is entirely up to you. And if you are unable to follow the same procedure every week for any reason, do not hate on yourself. Set is always with His chosen ones, and He knows what we are all going through. Our Sabbat is not a commandment, but a gift. There is no expectation that we must observe it every week; but it is always there whenever we need it.
Egyptian New Year
The Egyptian New Year festival (or Wep Ronpet, which means “Opening of the Year”) coincides with the heliacal rise of Sirius, the annual flooding of the Nile, and the Dog Days of Summer. It technically falls on a different date each year, and the precise calculation of this date depends on your geographical location.
A heliacal rising occurs when a star that hasn’t been seen in the nighttime sky for a while becomes visible again in the east, just before dawn. Sirius disappears for about 70 days in May, and it reappears toward the end of July and the middle of August. (This is called the “Sothic Cycle.”) The Nile River always floods soon thereafter, just like clockwork. There isn’t much rainfall in Egypt at all, so this annual inundation provided the only means for irrigation in ancient times. And when the Egyptians saw Sirius rising in the east just before dawn in late July, they took it as a sign from the goddess Isis (the ruler of Sirius) that it was time to start planting all their crops for the year. To this very day, the Egyptian people still celebrate the annual flooding of the Nile as a two-week civil holiday called Wafaa El-Nil, which begins each year on August 15.
August 15 is also a significant date for me personally, as it marks the anniversary of when I first came to Set in 1997. So while everyone who observes this holiday will understandably observe it on different dates due to the Sothic Cycle, I just celebrate it on August 15 each year and call it a day. To be honest, the Dog Days of Summer (which take their name from Sirius, “the Dog Star” in Canis Major) just feel very sacred to me in general.
Wep Ronpet is not just the start of a new year; it is also an echo of the Zep Tepi or “First Time,” when the first god began to stir within the primordial ocean of chaos. One way to mark this occasion is to greet the sun as it rises (on whichever date you prefer to celebrate) beside a body of water (preferably a large one, if possible). As you watch the sunrise, know that you aren’t just watching the start of another day; you are witnessing a “re-run” of the Creation of the universe. Another worthwhile holiday activity would be execrating any negativity you might have collected in your life over the past year, which is something many people who walk with the Egyptian gods do. (For an example of an execration rite that we use in LV-426, check out Episode #31 of this series.)
Halloween isn’t “just for kids,” and it wasn’t invented by the candy companies either. It originates from a blend of Celtic folk religion and Roman Catholicism. It is just the first of three holy days—All Hallows’ Eve (October 31), All Saints’ Day (November 1), and All Souls’ Day (November 2)—which are collectively known as Hallowtide.
Even before the Catholic Church reached Great Britain and Ireland, these three dates were already an ancient festival called Samhain (“SOW-wynn”) in Gaelic and Nos Galan Gaeaf (“knows GAIL-uhn GUY-ov”) in Welsh. It marked the end of the harvest season and the start of winter, which was an extremely frightening time for the Celts. Many of them would die of starvation, disease, or freezing temperatures before the following summer. For this reason, the first night of winter weighed heavily upon their minds, and people thought the barriers between this world and the next were temporarily lifted, allowing the dead and other paranormal beings to roam free. This wasn’t so bad when it came to ghosts, who were viewed as beloved ancestors to be welcomed. Malevolent faeries and qliphothic entities were the real concern, and people dressed in frightening animal skins, carved protective charms from turnips, and left out offerings of food to keep such things away. It’s from these ancient traditions that wearing costumes, carving jack o’lanterns, and trick-or-treating are all descended.
Halloween was always my favorite holiday growing up, more important than the winter holidays, and it’s the first thing in which I ever took a religious interest, even before Set. I enjoy handing out candy to trick-or-treaters on October 31st; but once the boils and ghouls have all gone home, I begin my all-night vigil for the dead. I light some candles for our ancestor shrine in the kitchen, and I say some words to our dearly departed. I keep the candles burning all night long, not going to bed until 5:30 in the morning or so. Then I repeat this process the following two nights.
Spooky things do tend to happen during these vigils, like voices or footsteps that come from nowhere (especially around 3:00 am). But nothing scary or sinister ever happens, perhaps due to our ancestors’ protection. Call it “superstition” if you like, but we take this stuff pretty seriously. I think it’s important to keep the true spirit of Halloween alive as much as we can.
Walpurgisnacht or Walpurgis Night is a spring fertility festival that’s observed each year on April 30. It’s the Teutonic equivalent to May Day or the Celtic Beltaine, but was later renamed after the medieval Christian Saint Walpurga. It represents the cross-quarter point of our solar year between the Spring Equinox and the Summer Solstice, and it’s a time for warding off the last vestiges of winter. It’s most often observed in continental Europe by wearing scary costumes, lighting huge bonfires, and making all kinds of godawful racket to scare away the evil spirits. In fact, you might say Walpurgisnacht is Germany’s version of Halloween; one might even call it “Samhain in the Spring.”
For Setians in LV-426, the lore of witches roaming mountains on this night, throwing bacchanalian rites to a horned god mistaken for “Satan” is suggestive of our own experiences with Set. Since He is a nocturnal god of the wilderness, we’ve always preferred to recite our incantations to Him in lonely woodsy areas after dark (or immediately before dawn). And since the ears of Set’s most holy symbol, the Sha, resemble “horns” (not to mention that some of His other sacred animals include such horned and hoofed critters as antelope and oryx), it is easy enough to conceptualize ourselves as “witches” who invoke a horned god at night. So adopting Walpurgisnacht into our religious calendar has always made sense, at least to us.
With apologies to Francisco Goya…
Perhaps the greatest Walpurgisnacht in LV-426 history so far was in 2005. It was on a Saturday that year, and I was living in Houston. The Tonester drove down to visit me for the whole weekend, and we hit the city together like bricks fired from a machine gun. We roamed every strip club, antique book store, and vintage record shop we could afford at the time, growling the lyrics to all our favorite death metal songs and shouting a random “DUA SET!” at every turn. It was perhaps the only time in my life that I have ever felt completely comfortable wearing my spirituality on my sleeve in public. It was a weekend full of booze, lewd jokes, horror flicks, and about a ton and a half of heavy fuckin’ metal. We really shook the pillars of heaven, by gods, and when it was over, we both knew Big Red was mighty pleased.
“Turn it up to 11, Hoss!”
Saturday, April 30, 2005: The city of Houston fell under siege to a bizarre sect known only as LV-426. Heads were turned and jaws were dropped as two strapping young lads of Sutekh took to the streets. No slice of pepperoni pizza was safe. No vintage record shop could run. No 1970s folk horror movie could hide. But lo, musical instrument shops had it the worst by far; for Set’s crazed servants did ecstastically hammer on drums, strum on electric guitars, and scream psalms to His Majesty on microphones turned up to 11 in full public view. Never before had such madness been seen or endured by the community, and the dark wizards soon vanished as mysteriously as they had appeared, like a nightmare before the break of day. No evidence remains of the outlandish lunacies that were witnessed on that fateful Walpurgis Night—not even a photograph…
When Set slays Osiris in Egyptian mythology, He chops him into 14 pieces, 13 of which are then buried throughout the world (before they are re-assembled and restored to life by Isis), while Set feeds the final piece—Osiris’ phallus—to an elephantfish. (Dennis Wheatley refers to this fish as “the Talisman of Set” in his 1934 novel, The Devil Rides Out.) There were also 13 people at the Last Supper of Christ, which was soon followed by his crucifixion (on a Friday, no less). In both tales, the dying-and-rising god can’t rise from the dead until he is killed first (with Judas Iscariot fulfilling the Setian role in the Christian narrative). The god must be sacrificed before he can rise again and offer new life to the world, and in this context, the number 13 represents initiation: the (often painful) ending of one phase of existence, followed by the glorious emergence of a new and better life.
In LV-426, we don’t view Set and Osiris as “enemies”; we think of the two as being like a gardener and a rosebush, respectively. It’s Set’s job to “prune” Osiris so the latter can produce fresh “blooms,” which keeps the universe alive and healthy. If Set were not there to keep Osiris regenerating himself, there would be no past and no future; there would only be a static present in which nothing new can thrive. So while the experience of being “pruned” by life’s hard knocks certainly isn’t pleasant for anyone, Setians in LV-426 believe it’s important to honor Set for His role in this process. We also think it’s important to take a moment and Hail Osiris as well, and Friday the Thirteenth is our preferred time for doing so.
Watermelon is reported to be one of Set’s favorite foods, and since it’s a plant, it is also sacred to Osiris. So one LV-426 custom for Friday the Thirteenth is to buy a watermelon, recite some prayers over it, chop it up, and share it with Set and Osiris as a sacred meal. As we each eat the watermelon, we also partake of Osiris’ regenerative powers so we can heal and grow back stronger from whatever trials we are currently facing in life. One year, we hosted this dinner at a derelict cemetery, and we respectfully shared our offerings of watermelon with the forgotten ancestors who were buried there.
“Dinner with the Dead” we hosted in honor of Osiris for Friday the 13th, August 2010.
Aside from hockey masks (thanks to Jason Voorhees), black cats are one of the first things people associate with Friday the Thirteenth. Everyone knows the old superstition about how you’ll get “seven years’ bad luck” if a black cat crosses your path. But what most people don’t realize is that cats are actually very lucky creatures to have around, and that black cats are especially lucky. Remember, cats were worshiped in ancient Egypt; they were protected by law from injury and death, and families mourned, mummified, and buried their beloved felines as if they were human beings. Cats were thought to have a special connection to the spirit world, and were especially cherished for driving away evil spirits. The color black was also considered very lucky indeed, given its association with the fertile soil of the Nile Valley. From this perspective, a black cat is twice as lucky as usual, for it not only has all the standard demon-repelling bells and whistles; it also carries the promise of hope, fertility, and regeneration wherever it goes.
My youngest child, Bishop.
The number of days in February and March are such that if Friday the Thirteenth ever falls in the former, it will also fall in the latter (unless we’re in a leap year). Having two consecutive Friday the Thirteenths in the same month like this only happens 3 times every 28 years, and it never happens at any other time of year. For these and other reasons, this occasion is considered highly sacred in LV-426 and is observed as a month-long festival that we call Miew Khem or “the Month of the Black Cat.”
An example of an execration ritual, a procedure to cast out and/or ward off negative energy.
Everyone showed up at our house around 5:00 PM that Saturday, and each person was given a small ceramic pot and a black Sharpie marker. I instructed them to write and/or draw whatever they liked on their pots. Whatever they wrote or drew had to represent negative things that were bothering them and that they wanted to cast out from their lives. It was a silent and solemn twenty minutes as everyone meditated on the demons that were haunting them the most, pouring all that sad and frightening energy into their drawings.
Once everyone had finished decorating their qliphothic pots, I implored them not to touch anyone else’s pot (or to let anyone else touch theirs). We had just created the magical equivalent of bio-hazardous waste products, and it was vital that no one be “infected” by anyone else’s bad vibes.
Then we all went out into the back yard, where Blackwyn and I had prepared a small altar to Set (complete with His statue and a big red lantern). We had also set up a couple of garden tiles on which all of our qliphothic pots could be smashed.
One of our friends brought her 2-year-old daughter, and the little girl had brought her toy pig. As we prepared to recite the opening invocation, the girl approached the altar and stared at Big Red’s statue. We were briefly worried that we’d need to intercede, but she just stood there, quietly and respectfully gazing at the man with the funny animal head. Then she placed her toy pig right beside the statue and said, “That better”—as if she somehow understood that pigs are one of Set’s favorite critters. As the child walked back to her mother, everyone who was present felt a powerful chill, including those who weren’t committed believers.
It was evident that Set was already present, but I invoked Him into our ceremony just the same:
Hail, Son of Nut! You Before Whom the Sky Shakes! Hear us, O Lord of the Wastelands! O Divine Foreigner! O Bringer of Winds! O Savior of the Sun! As You travel the Desert between the Worlds, as You smite the Evil One again and again, look down upon us and straighten our spines! Open our mouths to speak great words of power! We are Your soldiers upon this Earth; put us to Your work!
Now it was time to conjure the Chaos Serpent and kill it together as a tribe—as a constellation brought together by Set from across the Earth:
Torment be upon you,
Apep! You enemy of Set, of all gods and all creatures! The Companions of Set prevail over you, for you are but the filth of unborn pasts! Accursed shell and nothingness, the Typhonian Beast shall rip and tear you asunder, and scatter your meat as confetti to the winds! Taste your death, Apep! Get back and retreat, O enemy of Set! Fall down, be repulsed, get back and retreat! For the Eye of Set is upon you, piercing you like a spear! It is His Army that drives you back with all of our thunder and metal! O vile and vapid corruption, WE CAST YOU BACK INTO NOTHINGNESS!
Then we all took a deep breath…and we chucked our qliphothic pots upon the garden tiles as forcefully as we could, all at the same time.
No one expected the crash of the pots to be as loud as it was; it echoed throughout the neighborhood like a thunderclap. The shards flew more violently than we had anticipated as well, but no one was harmed. We were briefly shaken by the sight and the sound of what we had done, but we also felt a clear and powerful sense of release, like a knotted muscle melting into butter.
Then I brought our spell to a close:
Back, fiend! An end to you! Set has driven thunder and lightning at you! Set has made you to be destroyed, and Set has condemned you to evil! An end, an end to you! Taste your death! An end to you! You will NEVER swallow the dawn! You will NEVER win the night!
Our curse had been cast, and our demons were on the run. The others went inside to decompress from this experience, and Blackwyn and I went to sweep up the debris of the qliphothic pots.
Then, as if on cue, it started to rain.
We decided to leave the qliphothic pots alone, so Big Red could piss on the Chaos Serpent’s corpse for a spell.
Everything I write and produce for Set is for free. This ongoing work is a devotional offering not only to Him, but to anyone else who loves the mighty Red God, or who might just be interested in Him, even if it’s for non-spiritual reasons.
If you enjoy my work, by all means, please share it with others. I only ask that I be acknowledged as the author; apart from that, you can print everything I write out on printer paper and hand it out on the streets for all I care. (Though that probably isn’t wise right now; I would recommend sticking to electronic circulation for the time being.)
If you speak another language apart from English and you would like to translate my work, please feel free to do so and to disseminate the translated material in your locale. I’m sorry I can’t pay you, but I’m not making any revenue here either, and I don’t want to. No one should have to pay any money or kiss any hiney to learn about the mighty Champion of Ra!
That being said: If you catch anyone trying to SELL my work to you or to others, please let me know so I can take the appropriate legal action against them. This is all for SET, gods dammit, not for money, and I don’t want ANYONE to profit from this work except in a purely spiritual or intellectual sense.
May the Great of Strength be with you all!
Yes Virginia, some people still believe in many gods today, and it’s every bit as legitimate as believing in just one.
Anthropomorphism is the act of characterizing something that isn’t human (whether animal, vegetable, or mineral) with human qualities, feelings, and motivations. Bugs Bunny, for instance, speaks English, stands on two legs, and is generally a smartass. We all know real rabbits don’t do either of these things, so Bugs is what we call an anthropomorphized rabbit (and a damn funny one, too).
It’s impossible to practice any sort of theistic religion without anthropomorphizing the god or pantheon that’s involved to some extent at least, even when it comes to monotheism. Polytheists are only the most obvious example, given that we actually invoke our gods into cultic images. Usually these icons are at least somewhat humanoid, even if they have animal heads (like the Egyptian pantheon) or multiple appendages (like the Hindu pantheon). Even when these images are completely zoomorphic, polytheists tend to be animists as well, believing that animals have souls just as humans do (as well as trees, rivers, stars, planets, etc.). So polytheism actively encourages us to anthropomorphize the entire cosmos.
Monotheists condemn this practice as “idolatry,” which is extremely offensive to polytheists for several reasons. First, it demonstrates a complete misunderstanding of what we believe and do. For some reason, monotheists always think we are cavepeople who think the icons we create and use for worship are actually alive and can move around or something like that. But not even ancient polytheists were that naïve. Our gods are not the man-made images themselves, but the cosmic forces these images are designed to signify. The statue of a god is merely a tool for worship, not the actual object of worship itself.
Just consider this story from biblical folklore:
Abram tried to convince his father, Terach, of the folly of idol worship. One day, when Abram was left alone to mind the store, he took a hammer and smashed all of the idols except the largest one. He placed the hammer in the hand of the largest idol. When his father returned and asked what happened, Abram said, “The idols got into a fight, and the big one smashed all the other ones.” His father said, “Don’t be ridiculous. These idols have no life or power. They can’t do anything.” Abram replied, “Then why do you worship them?”
While I understand this story is allegorical, it is still dehumanizing and insulting to polytheists. Personally, I hope Abram’s father replied, “I don’t worship the idols; I worship THE GODS, whom the idols REPRESENT!” (And then I hope he grounded the little ingrate, since that little stunt probably cost their entire family several meals!)
When I invoke Set into one of His sacred images that I keep in my home, I treat the image as if it were a living, breathing entity. I kiss it, share offerings with it, or even blast some heavy metal and headbang with it. However, I am not naïve enough to think the image really IS Set. Gods are powerful, invisible cosmic forces that we’ve never been able to completely understand; we can see them working through natural phenomena, but we can’t actually see them directly. (And even if we could, it would probably make our brains explode and leak right out of our ears!) By anthropomorphizing the gods and inviting them into humanized images that we have created for them, we can demonstrate our love and respect for them just like we do for all the people and animals we love. When I kiss an image of Set, I know I am really only kissing an image; but the act of kissing that image is itself a powerful symbolic act. So while we can’t see or hear or touch the gods like we can see or hear or touch each other, this is the next best thing.
I fail to see how this is any different from how Roman Catholics treat their images of Jesus, the saints, and the Virgin Mary. They light candles in front of these statues and talk to them while they pray, but none of them are daft enough to think the statues are actually Jesus, Mary, or the saints themselves. At the same time, most Christians (including non-Catholics) would consider it blasphemous to step on a crucifix or tear up a Bible, both of which are powerful iconic images. And when people think about the Christian god, they visualize him as a white-bearded patriarch sitting on a throne in the clouds. Part of the entire point to Jesus, in fact, is that he’s supposed to be Yahweh himself in human form—and it doesn’t get any more anthropomorphic than that! In other words, Christianity anthropomorphizes its god and is every bit as “idolatrous” as Paganism is; but for some reason, it’s only “bad” or “evil” when non-Christians do these things.
Despite what anyone else might say, anthropomorphism is not a “bad” thing at all. It is also not entirely removed from reality. For example, we now know that willow, poplar, and sugar maple trees will actually warn each other about impending insect attacks; that bees possess cognition and an extremely complicated language; and that beavers are basically hydraulic engineers, creating dams to make ponds and build houses for the families. Trees, bees, and beavers might not think, feel, or communicate the same way human beings do, but they DO in fact think, feel, and communicate. And when ancient peoples anthropomorphized these and other aspects of nature, it was their way of living in balance with the rest of the universe. Even atheists can’t help projecting human thoughts and emotions onto their beloved pets, and it’s really a good thing that human beings do this. Anthropomorphism encourages us to empathize with nature, rather than treating it like some soulless, alien thing that only exists for us to exploit. The earth would not be burning out of control like it is right now if more people anthropomorphized nature today.
Polytheists are also stigmatized for offering gifts, especially of food and drink, to images of our gods. People assume we think the images will actually move and eat the food, or that we think our gods will “starve” if we don’t “feed” them. In all my years of identifying as a polytheist, I have never met a single person who ever believed either of these claims—not even once. If you have trouble understanding why anyone would want to offer food to a god, all you really need to grasp is the historical importance of sharing meals. Food is just as important today as it was in ancient times, and having enough of it is often a struggle for many people. Hence why sharing your food with someone else is considered a HUGE sign of compassion and respect in virtually every culture across the globe. Even today, inviting people to breakfast, lunch, and/or dinner is still a prominent form of social bonding. And that right there is the true purpose of offering food to deities: to bond with them socially. By invoking gods into images and offering them food, polytheists are inviting these cosmic forces over to dinner and treating them as distinguished houseguests. This is not just some wacky superstition, but a deeply affectionate form of religious worship that is every bit as authentic, legitimate, and passionate as anything that Christians, Muslims, or Jews practice.
Different polytheists make offerings in different ways. The Egyptians ingested their offerings, believing their gods would consume the spiritual energy of the food while the worshipers consumed its physical substance. I have always liked this way of doing it best, because it feels more like one is sharing with the deity than simply giving them things. When we treat people to dinner, we don’t just pay for them to eat and not eat anything ourselves; we eat with them. And if the gods truly consume anything during this process, it is the love and good will we express to them through such demonstrations of faith. But food and drink are not the only things we can offer; we can also offer actions, like helping a deity’s sacred animals, or writing literature and/or creating art for the god(s). We can participate in our communities in ways that honor them, like donating to a library for Thoth, picking up trash in a park for Geb, or visiting a dairy farm and feeding the baby milk cows for Hathor. There are all kinds of things we can offer to the gods and share with them and others that will make our souls and spirits glow with love and good vibes.
Another stigma against polytheists is the belief that we commit human sacrifices. It is true that certain civilizations engaged in this practice, but the Egyptians do not seem to have done so for any theological purpose. In those cases where a Pharaoh’s servants were ceremonially killed and buried with the deceased king, it was to appease the king, not the gods. As a polytheist, I think killing anyone except in self-defense is a barbaric offense against the gods, and most other polytheists will tell you the same. If a person kills someone in the name of a polytheist god, they are in the exact same category as monotheists who bomb abortion clinics or fly airplanes into skyscrapers because “God told me to.”
As for animal sacrifice, most polytheists do not engage in this practice today, but those who do usually live in rural areas and are accustomed to killing their own food. They are not cat-slashing sociopaths, but regular hunters or farmers; all that’s different is that they dedicate the animals to their gods and thank the animals for their lives before killing them and eating them. It’s not that different in principle from butchers preparing kosher or halal meat products. Suffice it to say that polytheists who live in urban or suburban areas have no reason to kill any animals, since we are just as accustomed to buying our food from local supermarkets as everyone else. Many of us are also vegetarians, vegans, and/or animal rights activists, so the idea that we run around bathing ourselves in goat’s blood is total bullshit.
Not a proper sermon, but a series of assorted prayers and incantations to Set.
I offer these as examples for anyone who might be wondering how they too can pray to the Red Lord.
A Setian look at Ishiro Honda’s Gojira (1954) and how Big G parallels Set in Egyptian mythology.
Prior to the 1950s, creature features were dominated by gothic characters like vampires, werewolves, and Frankenstein’s monster. This all changed after the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. At the height of the Cold War, Count Dracula and the Wolf Man just didn’t seem that frightening anymore. Now people were worried about the effects of atomic radiation. Would it cause terrible mutations to plague the earth (like in 1954’s Them)? Would it awaken prehistoric monsters and drive them to seek revenge (like in 1953’s The Beast From 20,000 Fathoms)? Would it attract the attention of aliens who could easily conquer or even destroy us (like in 1951’s The Thing From Another World)? This was the age of the “atomic horrors,” when people wrestled with the dark side of science. In many of these films, the horrific events result from unethical scientists who overstep the boundaries between mortals and the gods. By upsetting the cosmic balance in this way, these anti-heroes enable the Chaos Serpent to wreak havoc upon the earth in any number of forms. They are, in fact, the direct progeny of Dr. Victor Frankenstein, who had a much easier time adapting to the atomic era than either of his more supernatural colleagues.
The tropes of the “mad science” subgenre came into much clearer focus during the aftermath of World War II. It was absolutely horrible that the United States dropped not one but two atomic bombs on Japan during the war. But lest we forget, the Japanese committed some truly ghoulish atrocities as well. Kamikaze suicide flights; the attacks on Pearl Harbor, Malaya, Singapore, and Hong Kong; the systematic extermination of 30 million Filipinos, Malays, Vietnamese, Cambodians, Indonesians, and Burmese; the Nanking, Manila, and Kalagong massacres of civilians; the use of chemical weapons, biological warfare, and human experimentation on civilians and prisoners of war; the list goes on and on. The atrocities of Imperial Japan rival those of Nazi Germany, and for better or worse, the A-Bomb was the only thing that stopped them. And though Japan and the United States have been peaceful allies ever since, Japan continues to be haunted by the experience of being bombed with nuclear weapons.
When the U.S. started testing hydrogen bombs on the Marshall Islands during the 1950s, a Japanese fishing boat called The Lucky Dragon 5 was accidentally exposed to fallout from one of the exploded bombs. The entire crew was contaminated and suffered nausea, headaches, and bleeding gums. The chief radio operator, Aikichi Kuboyama, died in terrible agony and pain, praying that he would be the last victim of such terrible weaponry. Next thing anyone knew, the whole country of Japan was plunged into a panic, and that’s when the guys at Toho Studios decided to make a film about nuclear chaos as a living thing. Pulling together the creative team of director Ishiro Honda and special effects wizard Eiji Tsuburaya, it wasn’t long before Japanese movie screens were showcasing everyone’s favorite Iguanadon/Stegosaurus/Tyrannosaurus hybrid, the one and only Godzilla (or, as he is known in Japan, Gojira).
The original Godzilla, released in 1954, begins with a re-creation of the Lucky Dragon 5 incident, wherein the crew of a Japanese fishing boat notice that the ocean is glowing around them. Something roars from beneath the surface of the water, and the boat burns and sinks. A few of the men survive, but by the time the Japanese coast guard rescues them, the survivors are all suffering from radiation sickness. Not long after that, a fishing village on Odo Island is destroyed during a storm. A scientist named Kyohei Yamane (played by Takashi Shimura) leads a detailed investigation of the island, only to learn that it’s experiencing nuclear fallout. All the wells are poisoned, and the place is riddled with giant radioactive footprints. Then Godzilla shows up, and everyone gets a real good look at him. Lucky for them, Big G is just going for a walk, not seeking to cause any trouble, and he soon returns to the sea. Dr. Yamane and his team then return to Japan and report what they’ve found to the government, which promptly divides itself between those who think the story should be kept under wraps (and who are mostly men) and those who think they should be warning everybody in the country about what’s really happening (and who are mostly women).
Now Dr. Yamane has a lovely daughter named Emiko (played by Momoko Kochi), and she is caught in a tragic love triangle. She’s engaged to marry a scientist named Dr. Daisuke Serizawa (Akihiko Hirata), who is a World War II veteran. He was injured in the war, now wears an eyepatch, and seems to be alienated from everyone else around him. Unfortunately for Dr. Serizawa, Emiko has fallen in love with another dude named Hideto Ogata (Akira Takarada), a salvage ship captain who’s involved in the investigation of Godzilla. But before Emiko can break off their engagement, Serizawa shows her why he’s become so alienated from everybody. He takes her to the basement of his house and shows her a new invention he’s been working on. We can’t really see what the device does just yet, but whatever it is, it makes Emiko scream and faint. And when she leaves Serizawa’s house, it’s like she’s been lobotomized.
Meanwhile, the government begs Dr. Yamane for a way to kill Godzilla; but as Yamane himself points out, the creature has absorbed all that fallout from those H-Bomb tests at the Marshall Islands. In other words, Godzilla literally eats, pisses, and shits pure atomic energy; so just how the fuck is anyone supposed to kill the big guy? Furthermore, Dr. Yamane does not want Godzilla to die, but thinks the creature should be contained and studied instead. He figures there are probably all kinds of things scientists can learn from an animal that’s strong enough to survive a atomic blast. But the government doesn’t listen; it just tries to neutralize Godzilla before he becomes too much of a nuisance. This only pisses the monster off, of course, and Big G eventually hits the city of Tokyo for a night on the town.
When Godzilla attacks Tokyo for the first time, there’s absolutely nothing humorous or “cheesy” about it. We see men being set on fire and screaming for the mercy of death. We see a mother holding her children and crying, “We’ll be with your Daddy in heaven very soon, now!” We see news anchors offering their lives to keep reporting on Godzilla for any listeners who are still trying to escape the city. We see hospital doctors waving Geiger counters over newly orphaned children (while the kids scream for their dead parents), and we see schoolchildren singing prayers for all the people who’ve died. These scenes are made even more disturbing by the fact that they weren’t just “dreamed up” by a storyboard artist. They’re based on real events Ishiro Hondo personally witnessed during the aftermaths of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. So in a way, the 1954 Godzilla isn’t just a science fiction/horror film; it’s practically a documentary.
Some have argued that Godzilla is a work of anti-American propaganda; surely, having the giant lizard puke radioactive shit all over Tokyo is really America’s fault, right? But it seems to me that Big G is actually a self-critical symbol of Japanese ultraviolence turned against itself. The way Ishiro Honda frames the narrative, it feels almost as if he thought Japan deserved to be wiped off the face of the planet by an atomic fire-breathing dinosaur. Godzilla is like a judgment from the gods, sent to humble Japan for every horrific war crime it ever committed as an Axis Power. And as the film eventually reveals, the only way to defeat the monster is by creating something even worse than what awakened him. That’s when Emiko finally reveals what Dr. Serizawa’s been hiding in his basement all this time.
Akihiko Hirata as Dr. Daisuke Serizawa.
Serizawa fought on the wrong side of an immoral war. He has directly experienced true evil more than any other character in the entire film. Perhaps he has even committed a few wartime atrocities of his own. Horrified by what probably he saw (and did) during the war, he is now a devout pacifist; yet he has invented something called “the Oxygen Destroyer,” completely by accident. This device somehow removes all oxygen from the body, instantly skeletonizing its victims; and after witnessing the holocaust in Tokyo, Emiko and Ogata try to convince Serizawa to use this new weapon against the beast. But Serizawa refuses; he’s terrified that if his Oxygen Destroyer is ever discovered, corrupt political forces from around the world will conspire to use it as a new weapon of war. What if they somehow coerce or trick him into creating more of these hellish devices? And if nuclear weapons have given us Godzilla, what terrible thing will the Oxygen Destroyer bring in its wake? That’s when Ogata says the most chilling line in the entire movie. He admits that Serizawa’s fear might become a reality; then he points out that Godzilla is reality.
Serizawa agrees to use the Oxygen Destroyer, but he destroys all of his research first to prevent anyone from ever building another one. Then he is joined by Emiko, Ogata, Yamane, and the entire Japanese navy out at sea. They find where Godzilla is currently located, and Ogata and Serizawa descend together to the ocean floor. There they find Godzilla resting, at peace with himself and his surroundings. This is the most disturbing part of the film for me personally, because it reminds us that Godzilla is just an animal, another innocent victim of World War II. After Ogata returns to the surface, Serizawa activates the Oxygen Destroyer; then he decides to stay with Godzilla. He gives his life to take the secret of his invention to his grave, and I sense he also thinks it would be unjust for Godzilla to die alone. When Godzilla and Serizawa are skeletonized together, it never fails to make me weep profusely. Godzilla is like Set in His role as the slayer of Osiris; he’s this frightening destructive force that’s been pushed too far, and which has finally gone berserk. But Serizawa is like Set as the Champion of Ra; he is capable of causing great destruction, yet he’s a good guy who wants to protect civilization from chaos. In dying together (during their first and only meeting), these two versions of Set come together as one. Normally in this kind of movie, it’s a “good” thing when someone figures out a way to defeat the monster; but here, the creature’s death is treated as a tragedy and a potential starting point for even more violence and horror to come.
“Awwww! Who’s a good little atomic dinosaur?”
Ishiro Honda’s Godzilla was so tremendously successful in Japan that an American film company called Jewell Enterprises bought the international rights for the movie in 1956. Then they adapted the film for an English-speaking audience, and this went far beyond just dubbing the film with American voice actors. Due to the sizable rift between the American and Japanese styles of storytelling, Jewell totally restructured Godzilla to make it more accessible to the average American moviegoer. They filmed entirely new scenes with Raymond Burr, who played a new character named Steve Martin (not to be confused with the comedian). This character was then edited into the film (along with some Japanese-American actor doubles), and he was made a news reporter so he would have an excellent excuse for asking so many questions of the Japanese characters. This would give American audiences a character with whom they could identify, and to whom important plot elements could be explained.
Truth be told, most Americans would never have seen Godzilla if Jewell Enterprises hadn’t re-tooled the film for its own purposes in this way. In 1956, World War II was still fresh on everyone’s minds, and Americans were still racist as fuck against Japanese people. While the original Toho film isn’t “anti-American” at all, the folks at Jewell worried that some viewers might interpret it that way. They wanted the audience to identify with the Japanese characters as much as possible, not react to them with hostility. Plus, adding Raymond Burr to the mix does absolutely nothing to brighten or cheapen the sequence in which Godzilla destroys Tokyo; the entire segment is still just as dark and depressing as it is in the Japanese cut. If it hadn’t been for Jewell’s re-packaging of the film, no one outside Japan would even know about Godzilla today. It’s definitely not above criticism, and it’s certainly inferior to the original Japanese cut; but Jewell’s Godzilla: King of the Monsters (the American title) still deserves some respect for what it’s given us. (Besides, you’re missing out on the full Godzilla experience if you only watch one version of the film or the other.)
At the end of Godzilla, Dr. Yamane predicts that if people don’t end the nuclear arms race, another Godzilla might eventually appear to punish the world again. He was proven correct less than a year later when the much less impressive Godzilla Raids Again was released in 1955. Since then, Godzilla has appeared in over 30 different films. One of my personal favorites is Ghidorah: The Three-Headed Monster (1964), which is when Godzilla becomes a defender of the earth rather than its potential destroyer. A three-headed space dragon named King Ghidorah shows up and starts burning everything to the ground with his yellow lightning breath. Then Mothra, a giant caterpillar goddess, appears and tries to get Godzilla and Rodan (a giant pterosaur) to help her kick Ghidorah’s ass. This leads to one of the most endearing scenes in any Godzilla film ever, where the three beasties actually speak to each other (while being translated for the human audience by Mothra’s twin fairies). Godzilla and Rodan say they don’t give a shit what happens to humankind; they just want to be left alone. So Mothra goes to face Ghidorah herself, only to have her ass handed to her; and when Godzilla and Rodan see that, they get royally pissed and start beating Ghidorah like he owes them money. It’s one of the greatest monster throwdowns ever made!
This sequence is so damn important and inspirational to me, I’m going to throw up a video review someone else has made about it, just so you can see some clips.
Godzilla’s evolution from apocalyptic monster to child-friendly superhero is a fascinating discussion in and of itself. Recall that in the original 1954 film, Big G is a lot like Set as the slayer of Osiris. The story goes that once His rivalry with Osiris was resolved, Set was “reigned in” by the rest of the gods to save them from
Apep, the Chaos Serpent. In much the same way, Godzilla starts out in the first movie as an innocent freak of nature who goes apeshit and almost nukes the entire planet; then, in Ghidorah, the world realizes it needs Godzilla to defend us from even worse monsters that just want to eat our planet. Ghidorah is really just Apep with wings, feet, and two extra heads, so whenever I watch Godzilla put the smackdown on him, I always feel like I’m watching some kind of Setian “miracle play” (with Godzilla and Rodan as a combative Set and Horus, respectively, and with Mothra as Thoth the mediator).
Since Godzilla’s rise to fame, Hollywood has tried adapting him for American audiences a number of times. In 1998, Dean Devlin and Roland Emmerich produced that terrible remake starring Matthew Broderick. It’s odd that they even chose to name the film Godzilla, considering that it’s actually a remake (or perhaps a parody) of The Beast From 20,000 Fathoms (1953). Any hardboiled Godzilla fan will tell you the 1998 film stinks and should be ignored at all costs; but in 2014, director Gareth Edwards tried adapting Big G for the West once again. And while audience reactions have been very mixed, I was quite pleased with the result myself. It is surprisingly not a remake of the 1954 original, but more of an homage to all the sequels that make Godzilla the hero. Michael Dougherty’s 2019 follow-up, Godzilla: King of the Monsters (named after the Raymond Burr re-edit from 1956), was even better in my opinion, since it’s more or less a remake of Ghidorah: The Three-Headed Monster (complete with Mothra and Rodan teaming up with Godzilla). There’s even a scene that pays homage to the Oxygen Destroyer sequence from 1954, and it makes me cry like a baby whenever I see it. These newer Godzilla flicks might not be to everyone’s liking, but I wholeheartedly approve, and I can’t wait to see more of them.
Discussing the Amityville Horror, the greatest American paranormal hoax of the 1970s, and its influence on the Satanic Panic of the 1980s.
The Amityville Horror began as a hoax concocted by the late George Lutz, which he based on the real life case of Ronald DeFeo. DeFeo murdered his family one night at 112 Ocean Avenue in Amityville, Long Island back in 1973, and the Lutz family were the first to move into that address afterwards. They only stayed there for one month, during which they claimed to be harassed by demonic voices, phantom pigs, invisible marching bands, and a mysterious black ooze dripping out of the walls. Neither of these stories has ever been substantiated, but Lutz landed a book deal with author Jay Anson, who novelized the story as The Amityville Horror (Prentice Hall, 1977). This was later adapted into a 1979 film starring James Brolin and Margot Kidder. For whatever reason, it became one of the most financially successful films of the 1970s, despite the fact that it was produced by American International Pictures (known best for their cheap drive-in schlock from the 1950s and 1960s), and the fact that it’s boring as shit.
Amityville was so successful, in fact, that it quickly spawned a prequel: Amityville II: The Possession (1982). This second film is ostensibly about the DeFeo family, but it takes so many sickening liberties with their lives that I can’t really endorse watching it. It takes its inspiration from Ronald DeFeo’s murder defense, wherein his lawyer, William Weber, seriously tried to push the claim of “demonic possession” in court. This seems especially tasteless considering that George Lutz and William Weber turned out to be in cahoots with each other at the time. (Not for long, though; Lutz soon tried to sue Weber, as well as several other people, for saying things about him he didn’t like. This guy seems to have spent more time suing people than he ever did working an honest job.) Yet Amityville II was also successful at the box office, which meant another film would soon be following in its wake. So in 1983, Orion Pictures gave us Amityville 3D, which is commonly thought to be even worse than the original Amityville.
The thing is, I actually enjoy Amityville 3D quite a bit; in fact, I think it’s the best Amityville film ever made. (Don’t get overly excited now—that isn’t really saying much!) One thing I like about this one is the fact that it isn’t “based on a true story”; it’s completely fictional, and it never claims to be otherwise. Sure, the story is abysmally stupid, and the characters are more two-dimensional than you can possibly imagine. I can’t even remember any of their names; I just remember Tony Roberts plays an asshole skeptic who moves into 112 Ocean Avenue and stubbornly refuses to believe it’s haunted. Never mind the fact that it kills his best friend (Candy Clark) and his daughter (Lori Loughlin). Then he and his ex-wife Tess Harper get help from Dr. Robert Joy to free their daughter’s soul from the house. There’s also a slimy Bug-Eyed Monster living in the basement, and it seems to be responsible for all the weird shit that happens in the house. That’s pretty much the entire plot right there; there’s nothing about the DeFeos or the Lutzes, and nobody connected with the Amityville Horror hoax appears to have collected any royalties from this entry (which automatically makes it better than either of its predecessors, as far as I’m concerned).
Mind you, Amityville 3D is not what I would call a “good” movie by any means. It’s just that it chooses to exploit a silly movie theater gimmick (3D camera photography) instead of a real-life murder case, which I find much more forgivable. Yet there are some things about this film that I truly enjoy. For one thing, it scared me pretty badly when I first saw it as a kid. In a sequence that shamelessly rips off The Omen (1976), Candy Clark’s character discovers a demonic face in the photos she has taken of the 112 Ocean Avenue property. She freaks out and goes to warn Tony Roberts, but then gets harassed by a demon fly while she’s driving in her car. She crashes her vehicle and is then set on fire, and as she dies, she screams one of the most convincing screams of pain I’ve ever heard in any horror flick. Now up until this point in the film, Clark is built up as being the main female lead, so it was really unexpected (not to mention upsetting) to see her get bumped off like that. It’s not an easy scene for me to watch even as an adult, so I have to give the creative team behind Amityville 3D a great deal of credit for scaring me pretty good.
The infamous Amityville house (112 Ocean Avenue) in 1973.
Robert Joy’s character is a parapsychologist who works at some nameless university or institute somewhere, and who is both a “believer” and a “skeptic” at once. He clearly believes in the paranormal, but he’s slow to accept any particular claims about it without sufficient evidence. He was likely only written into the film to make it feel more like 1982’s Poltergeist (which features a number of similar characters), but I enjoy his presence all the same. The other characters are either too quick to believe whatever wild-eyed crap they hear (like Candy Clark and Tess Harper), too quick to dismiss it (like Tony Roberts), or too quick to fuck around with it (like Lori Loughlin and her teenage friends). Of course, the believers turn out to be right about everything in the end; but Robert Joy seems to be the only person in Amityville with a good head between his shoulders, and he’s charming and likable to boot.
It’s too easy to pick this film apart for everything it does wrong; my only serious complaint against it is that there just isn’t enough of the gooey booger monster that shows up at the end. It would have been much more impressive if the writers had decided to unleash this beastie at the beginning of the final act, so he can raise some serious hell for the last 20 minutes or so. As it is, we only see the damn thing for a few seconds before it scorches off Robert Joy’s face and drags his ass down to hell. Then we get some telekinetic-fu as Tony Roberts, Tess Harper, and the rest of Robert Joy’s investigative team get thrown around by invisible forces throughout the house. This part is actually pretty entertaining (especially the shot where the basement door explodes and crashes into one of the scientists, resembling a live-action Looney Tunes segment); but I really wanted to see some monster-fu instead. Oh well, at least the house blows up; if I can’t have my fill of slimy glopola goodness, I’ll settle for a nice random explosion!
Just what in tarnation IS that thing, anyway?
In the earlier movies, the evil of the house is “confronted” by the Roman Catholic Church. The first movie features Rod Steiger as a priest who tries to help the Lutzes from afar, but who really doesn’t accomplish anything useful in the end; he just sort of loses his marbles, and then the movie forgets about him. The second film features a priest who tries to perform an exorcism on the Ronald DeFeo character, but he only succeeds in getting himself possessed instead. In Amityville 3D, Robert Joy’s character is a little more successful in dealing with the evil. (I mean, he does piss it off enough to make it blow its own home to smithereens; that’s got to count for something, right?) This transition from relying on organized religion to relying on quacky pseudoscience for answers was characteristic of the early 1980s. This was the era when the New Age movement really let fly and when “ancient astronauts” were all the rage. Not that I’m criticizing anyone for believing in that stuff if that is what they wish to believe; I just think it’s fascinating that the Amityville filmmakers would choose to take this course. The entire point of 1979’s The Amityville Horror was to cash in on earlier films like The Exorcist (1973), which is practically a late night infomercial for the Catholic Church. Amityville 3D is more like the bastard stepchild of Nigel Kneale’s The Stone Tape (1972), which uses scientific speculation to explain its supernatural events.
If it seems I am being too hard on the Lutzes and their fellow conspirators, it’s because their little hoax was just one of several that fed into the Satanic Panic of the 1980s. Of all the paranormal investigators who ever looked into their story, Ed and Lorraine Warren are perhaps the most famous and well-known. You might remember their names from all those Conjuring and Annabelle movies that have been produced over the past decade. Ed and Lorraine were a self-styled demonologist and clairvoyant, respectively, who claimed to have investigated over 10,000 hauntings together between 1952 and 2006. And during the late 1970s and 1980s, they were featured on damn near every TV special about the paranormal you might care to mention. My first exposure to them was in Scream Greats Volume 2: Satanism and Witchcraft, a direct-to-video “documentary” from 1986, wherein the Warrens insisted that organized “satanic ritual abuse” (SRA) is absolutely real. These hucksters made their fortunes by hoodwinking people into thinking that minority faiths like mine want to abuse and butcher your children, and the Amityville hoax is what facilitated their rise to fame. Granted, the Warrens weren’t the only SRA-peddlers in business at the time, and they certainly weren’t the worst. But whenever I see a trailer for yet another “Conjuring Universe” movie that probably cost about $140 million to produce, it just makes me feel a little queasy, you know?
There are several other Amityville films that came out after Amityville 3D, but only one of them—the 2005 remake starring Ryan Reynolds—was ever released theatrically. The rest are all direct-to-video or made-for-TV cheapies. The ones that were produced by Steve White—Amityville: The Evil Escapes (1989), Amityville: It’s About Time (1992), Amityville: A New Generation (1993), and Amityville: Dollhouse (1996)—are actually pretty enjoyable in my opinion; but they have almost nothing to do with Amityville or the house at 112 Ocean Avenue at all, so their titles are misleading at best.
The 1980s Satanic Panic; the persecution of Pagans (in some cases BY Pagans) as “Satanists”; and Rosemary’s Baby as a statement against systemic misogyny. Listener discretion is strongly advised.
In 1973, a woman named Michelle Smith was treated by a psychiatrist named Lawrence Pazder. Under hypnosis, Smith “remembered” being repeatedly abused by a “satanic cult” as a child. She was allegedly tortured, locked in a cage, and forced to mutilate several babies, all in the name of Satan. These stories were published in Pazder’s 1980 book, Michelle Remembers, which became an overnight sensation. Next thing anyone knew, other hypnotherapists started parading their patients around on TV, calling them “Satanic abuse survivors” and making a shit-ton of money off of them. Sensationalists like Geraldo Rivera popularized these stories, bullying their viewers into accepting these “survivors” and their stories at face value. People started believing there really was an international conspiracy of Satanists who were sexually abusing and cannibalizing little children. Even psychiatric and law enforcement professionals blindly accepted these stories as true. Just being a daycare worker and having someone accuse you of being a “Satanist” (perhaps because you enjoy heavy metal music, or because you play Dungeons & Dragons) was enough to get you prosecuted for alleged child abuse. As with any witch hunt in history, no evidence was required; countless people were thrown in prison and prohibited from seeing their children just on the basis of rumors and hearsay. This was the “Satanic Panic” of the 1980s.
Things didn’t improve until the FBI launched an official investigation of the matter in the early 1990s and said, “Woops! There’s zero hard evidence to support prosecuting any of the people who’ve been put away for this shit! Plus, it turns out that when people are under hypnosis, they’ll remember random shit they saw on TV and think it actually happened!” The adult “Satanic abuse survivors” were actually remembering things they had all seen in popular horror films. Many of them had suffered real abuse in their lives, but were not receiving the kind of care they actually needed. Their therapists were making far too much money being interviewed on daytime talk shows and playing off of people’s fears. Worse yet, this prevented children who really were being abused during the 1980s from getting help as well. The police were too busy hunting imaginary “witches” to do anything about the real pedophiles who were all around them the whole time, preying on children from within their police cars, their clinical offices, or even their church pews. These realizations helped to debunk the entire urban legend of organized “Satanic Ritual Abuse” (SRA), which has not been taken seriously by anyone in psychiatry or law enforcement ever since.
(This isn’t to say that no one has ever been abused by an actual, real life Satanist; it does occasionally happen. It just isn’t as widespread a problem as people think. Such acts are typically committed by lone individuals, not by organized groups, and the victims are usually children in the abusers’ families, not other people’s children. Those who continue to peddle organized SRA stories today are right-wing conspiracy nuts who insist that all the “evidence” for SRA is being “covered up” by nonexistent cults like the Illuminati. (And newer conspiracies like “Pizzagate” are simply a variation of the same theme.) Strange that these people think themselves to be such paragons of moral virtue, given how disappointed they seem to be that there isn’t an international Satanist conspiracy to abuse and murder scores of children!)
As a result of the Panic, the 1980s were a dangerous time to be participating in any new religious movements (NRMs). This was definitely the case for Pagans, many of whom also identify as witches. The word witch is of uncertain origin, but it generally refers to any woman who is wise in the ways of the spirit world. Its use as a slur is rooted in systemic misogyny toward empowered women, and it was reclaimed by Pagans during the 20th century (especially by Wiccans). But the stigma against witchcraft continues to thrive outside of Pagan culture; I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard about someone calling Child Protective Services on a parent simply because that parent identifies as a witch.
And while it’s understandable that Pagans would want to distance themselves from violent criminals, this was being done in some extremely deplorable ways. Some high profile leaders wrote scathing tirades against Satanism that were every bit as paranoid, deluded, and misinformed as Michelle Remembers. Some even argued that Pagans who follow gods like Loki and Set should be completely “shunned” from the Pagan community, regardless of anything we might say to explain ourselves. So while Christians were accusing Wiccans and Druids of “worshiping the devil,” Wiccans and Druids were throwing the exact same accusation at Lokeans and Setians. This strategy of deflecting hatred by redirecting it toward other religious minorities is the most disgusting and contemptible act of hypocrisy I have ever personally witnessed, and it continues to color my perspective on many “white light” Pagans to this very day.
Contrary to what most people assume, Satanism never really existed prior to the 20th century. It began as a purely imaginary religion that Christians accused Jews, Muslims, Pagans, and even other Christians of practicing. Apart from the decadent “hellfire clubs” of the Enlightenment period, Satanism wouldn’t become an actual movement until the 1960s. That’s when Anton LaVey founded the Church of Satan and published The Satanic Bible, in which he defined Satanism as a non-theistic spirituality that emphasizes self-deification. Lucifer is viewed not as a supernatural being, but as a symbol for the base animal urges in all people. Satanist rituals are about fulfilling these urges in ways that don’t actually harm anyone, like venting your hatred for someone by destroying something you’ve created to represent them. (Whether this “spell” of sympathetic magic actually works on your intended “victim” is incidental; its true purpose is to work on you.) Many of the people who follow LaVey’s teachings are narcissists, eccentrics, or even Social Darwinists; but surprisingly, most of them aren’t serial killers or child molesters.
The theme of witches harming children goes back thousands of years to the earliest known cases of blood libel in Alexandrian Egypt; but if there is any contemporary influence that gave shape to the Satanic Panic in particular, it is most certainly Rosemary’s Baby (1968), which set the standard for all “devil cult” movies to follow. (In fact, I’m willing to bet most of the “survivors” were specifically remembering things from this film while they were under hypnosis.) And due to its depiction of witches and witchcraft, Rosemary’s Baby can be a very difficult film for many Pagans to watch or even discuss.
Rosemary Woodhouse (played by Mia Farrow) and her husband Guy (John Cassavettes) move into a new apartment in Manhattan. Guy is a struggling actor looking for work, and Rosemary dreams of having a baby to care for at home. She appears to have mixed feelings toward her Roman Catholic upbringing; she blushes when other characters voice criticisms against the Pope, but she dreams of domineering nuns and of parties that are for “Catholics Only” while she’s asleep. The Woodhouses also have some peculiar new neighbors named Minnie and Roman Castavet. They’re an elderly couple who have a young hippie woman living with them, and they make lots of strange noises in their apartment at night. Their young lady friend soon turns up dead (after jumping out a window near the top of the apartment building), and then the Castavets suddenly become very interested in the Woodhouses. Rosemary notices Roman talking conspiratorially with Guy, who seems to have formed a close friendship with the old man, and Minnie keeps invading Rosemary’s space, showing up at the front door all the time and just inviting herself in.
Eventually the Woodhouses decide to try and have a baby, so they schedule a romantic evening at home. But Rosemary falls sick after dinner and collapses in their bed. She has a dream in which she is surrounded by the Castavets and many other elderly people (all of whom are nude). Then she is raped in the dream by a big hairy creature with snake-like eyes. Upon waking, she notices all these bruises and claw marks on her body. This is when we get our first clue that something is seriously wrong with her marriage, because Guy tries to comfort Rosemary by claiming that he had sex with her after she passed out (ostensibly because he was worried about missing her fertile window). Rosemary clearly isn’t comforted by this admission of marital rape, but she suppresses her anger and submits to her husband’s will. And when she discovers soon thereafter that she is actually pregnant, she seems to forget the whole thing for a while.
Rosemary is overjoyed with the prospect of motherhood, but her happiness wanes as she starts to feel a terrible pain in her stomach. The Castavets recommend that she see a doctor named Sapirstein, who prescribes a special vitamin drink for her and tells her she’ll be fine. But the pain only gets worse after that, and whenever Rosemary tries to tell Guy about it, he just becomes angry and belligerent. She begins to lose more and more control over her own body (even receiving criticism for a haircut she gets halfway through the film), and she starts to imagine that the Castavets are child-murdering witches. She comes to suspect Guy of having made a pact with them, a pact that somehow involves her unborn child. This is sustained by the fact that Guy visibly hated the Castavets when he and Rosemary first met them, but now he adores them for no apparent reason, listening to everything they suggest about Rosemary’s pregnancy. But are the neighbors really witches? Do they really want to hurt Rosemary’s baby? And is Guy really in on the plot? Or could it be that poor Rosemary has just gone crackers?
(If you wish to avoid reading any spoilers, stop reading this and go watch Rosemary’s Baby right now. If you’ve seen the movie already, or if you don’t care about spoilers, please proceed.)
It turns out the Castavets are indeed leading a coven of Satanist witches, but they’re not interested in harming Rosemary’s baby; since the father is actually Lucifer himself, they’re working to protect the little monster instead. And Guy is definitely in cahoots with them, having prostituted his wife to the devil in exchange for a solid movie career. But the real horror in Rosemary’s Baby is neither witchery nor diabolism; it’s the experience of being physically violated, of not being able to trust your spouse, and of being caught between two clashing ideologies that both regard your body as someone else’s property. It’s easy to see how this applies to the Castavets and their followers; for them, Rosemary is simply a vehicle for the delivery of their dark messiah, and she has no choice but to obey them at the end of the film. But do you know what else is good for oppressing women and legislating their uteruses? Roman Catholicism, that’s what. Were Rosemary to approach the Catholic Church for help, her situation would not be any different; she would still be expected to carry her pregnancy to term, and she would still be told what to do with her body by men who know nothing of what it’s like to be pregnant. (If the church thinks it’s a woman’s “duty” to give birth even when she’s been impregnated by a rapist, why should we expect anything different when that rapist turns out to be the devil?) In fact, Rosemary’s Christian upbringing actually helps the Castavets control her, because it has already conditioned her to go along with whatever is expected of her.
But this subtext goes even deeper, for Rosemary is the mother of the Antichrist, who is naturally the opposite of Jesus Christ. And what happens in the story of Jesus? Well, he’s born of a young woman who’s made pregnant by a supernatural being without her prior knowledge or consent, and—
The Satanists in Rosemary’s Baby are nothing like real life diabolists; they are instead a metaphor for the twisted chauvinist society in which we all live. Sure, they worship Lucifer instead of Yahweh, and they serve Antichrist rather than Jesus; but at the end of the day, they’re still an oppressive, abusive, and manipulative patriarchy. The men are in charge, the women are subservient, and one woman is raped so their male “savior” can walk the earth. How is the story of the Virgin Mary any different from that of Rosemary in principle? How is the Christian “pro-life” movement any better than what Guy and the Castavets do to keep Rosemary under their control? When I first saw this film, I couldn’t get past the fact that so many people think its depiction of witchcraft is 100% accurate. But as I re-watched it over the years, I began to understand its true purpose: to illustrate how horrible it is for women to be treated as “property” in the name of any male superbeing. Even Ira Levin, who wrote the novel on which Rosemary’s Baby is based, has expressed regret that it would later be used to reinforce the Satanic Panic so much. (Levin is Jewish, which means he doesn’t even believe in Satan and would have no reason to believe in organized SRA.)
Strangely, Anton LaVey was obsessed with this film, and it continues to enjoy a strong fan base among real life Satanists. The reasons for this are not immediately clear. LaVey appears to have thought the Satanist characters are revolutionary insofar as they resemble realistic, everyday people (as opposed to being a bunch of weirdos wearing black hooded robes). He also claimed to have served as an uncredited technical advisor for the film, providing some authenticity to the film’s ritual scenes. To the best of my knowledge, this claim has never been substantiated; LaVey simply spread the rumor around to cash in on the film and generate some free publicity for his church. Every now and then, I encounter a Satanist who thinks Rosemary’s Baby is “pro-Satan” somehow, and I can only shake my head at them. Considering how much fuel this movie gave to the Satanic Panic about 13 years after its original theatrical release, you’d think these people would find it just as troubling as most Wiccans or Druids do; but I digress.
Back in the 1990s, when I was still a young Setian novice, things were very different in the Pagan community than they are now. Nowadays, I can attend a Pagan meetup, mention I worship Set, and most people will probably be OK with having me around. But in the 1990s, it was a whole other deal. As soon as people saw my horned pentacle necklace or heard me praise the Son of Nut, they would tell me I wasn’t welcome, that I was being a “disruptive influence,” and that I should just leave. They automatically assumed I was some demented freak who just wanted to cause trouble. I’m pretty sure most Wiccans and Druids have no idea what it feels like to be excluded and alienated by other Pagans in this way. The thing that has always infuriated me the most about this treatment is that it was trickling down from the top. Big name Pagan leaders like Isaac Bonewits were actively encouraging their followers to treat Setians, Lokeans, and other Pagans they didn’t approve of like we’re all a bunch of extremist psychopaths. These “leaders” seemed to think the most appropriate way to deal with the Satanic Panic was by diverting society’s attention from themselves to people in Paganism they wanted to exclude. In doing this, they helped to promote a “legitimized” stereotype about Paganism that is not representative of the entire Pagan population.
To make things even more interesting, the #MeToo Movement has helped to reveal that some of these Pagan “leaders” are or might have been child abusers themselves. This brings new light to every nasty thing these people have ever said about people like us when the Satanic Panic was still fresh. Trying to save their reputations by targeting an entire sector of the Pagan population for exclusion is one thing; but to think that even the late great Isaac Bonewits was one of the people the police should have been investigating the whole time? I hope you can understand why I would be enraged by this.
The lessons to be taken from all of this are as follows. No one should ever be deprived of their bodily autonomy like Rosemary Woodhouse is by her husband Guy and the Castavets. While the Castavets don’t reflect actual Satanist practices or values, they do reflect the very real issue of human trafficking, which was not an issue most people were aware of during the 1960s. But if Rosemary’s Baby was meant to galvanize society into addressing this particular concern, perhaps it succeeded a little too well. It blurred the line between “new religious movements” and “human trafficking rings,” leading people to assume that all religious minorities are extremely dangerous. This distracted law enforcement from sufficiently investigating and prosecuting some of the real trafficking rings that were actually in operation at the time. It also led to several Pagan “leaders” throwing Pagans they didn’t like under the bus, even while some of them were allegedly abusing children behind locked doors. And if that doesn’t make you feel sick to your stomach, you must have a much weaker gag reflex than I do.
Wes Craven’s A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984) is a terrific allegory for the eternal conflict between Set and the Chaos Serpent. With instructions for a spell for protection during sleep.
In Wes Craven’s A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984), some teenagers start having nightmares in which they’re menaced by this disfigured creep who has knives for fingers. Whenever this asshat kills someone in their dreams, they die in real life at the same time. One of the teenagers, Nancy Thompson (played by Heather Langenkamp), discovers that when they were little children, their community was terrorized by a serial killer who preyed on little kids. The man was arrested and put on trial, but he got off on a technicality and was released. Then, fearing for their children’s safety, the parents of the community took the law into their own hands and burned the killer alive. But this has only made things worse, for it is the killer’s ghost who now haunts the kids in their dreams, seeking revenge against the parents by finishing what he started. Now it’s up to Nancy to find a way of execrating this evil spirit.
On the one hand, A Nightmare on Elm Street has more than its fair share of devoted fans; on the other, it receives far more derision from mainstream critics and the general public than it really deserves. I blame this on most of the sequels, which became increasingly goofy with each new installment. By the end of the 1980s, Freddy Krueger was practically a live action cartoon character, and this is the version of him that most people remember today. Sequels like The Dream Warriors (1987) and The Dream Child (1988) are more like self-parodies than straight horror films; they don’t even bother to take themselves that seriously. But if you watch the original Nightmare from 1984, I promise you: even if it doesn’t scare you, it will make you quite uncomfortable at the very least. There’s absolutely nothing “funny” about this film at all, and the Freddy Krueger character is really just the tip of the iceberg.
When the film begins, the daylight reality in which Nancy and her friends all live seems safe enough; but as Freddy Krueger becomes more prominent in their dreams, the ugly truth about their everyday world begins to unfold. These things are never stated to the audience outright, but viewers will notice that Nancy’s parents are divorced (and that the proceedings of this arrangement were anything but amicable). Nancy’s mother is an alcoholic, and her father—the town sheriff—only shows up whenever there’s a tragedy. At the same time, Tina’s mother also seems to be divorced and would much rather spend time with her boyfriend in Las Vegas than stay with her daughter (even when she knows the poor kid has been having terrible nightmares). Rod’s parents seem to be completely absent from his life, leading him to take on a life of petty crime. And then there’s Glenn (played by a baby-faced Johnny Depp), whose parents demonize Nancy for no good reason aside from the fact that two of her friends are dead.
It’s ironic that these parents once resorted to mob justice to protect their community, for they don’t seem to care very much about their community now. None of them are involved in their children’s lives anymore, and none of them seem to care that much when each other’s kids die. When Tina gets butchered, Rod is immediately accused of the crime, and none of the adults ever question this. We never see Tina’s mother afterwards, so we’re left to wonder if she even grieves for her daughter at all. When Rod gets strangled by Freddy in his jail cell, it’s clear to all the adults that it was suicide and no one shows any kind of sympathy for him. Clearly, Tina and Rod’s deaths mean nothing to Glenn’s parents, who seem to think they can avoid having anything like that happen to Glenn by keeping him away from Nancy. Meanwhile, Nancy knows exactly what’s happening, but no one will believe or even listen to her, even when the evidence is staring them in the face. For Duat’s sake, she can’t even get any help from her father, the sheriff!
It is this complete absence of parental support that makes the film truly terrifying, in my opinion. Never mind the idea that Nancy and her friends are being targeted by a supernatural force; Freddy Krueger is simply the 1980s American version of an ancient Akkadian Alû demon (i.e., a spirit that terrifies people while they sleep), and the ancient Akkadians knew well enough how to deal with such things. If an Akkadian child reported having certain experiences while he or she was asleep, his or her parents didn’t take any chances; they simply execrated the Alû with their magic and the problem usually went away. So the idea of Freddy Krueger in and of himself is not that impressive; entities like him are just little things in this world, and it doesn’t take that much to get rid of them. It would help if the Elm Street families were willing to entertain the possibility of such events in the first place; but even more importantly, the fact that the children can neither trust nor depend on their parents is a serious problem. That is what enables demonic forces like Freddy to perpetuate themselves in the first place, and that is what disturbs me most in this film.
Mind you, I’m not claiming that every childhood boogeyman is actually real; nor do I contend that magical thinking is always the best answer to one’s problems. But if I had a kid and she told me that some freak was coming after her in her dreams, I wouldn’t laugh at her or treat her like she’s crazy. I’d say, “Well, it could be one of two things going on here, hon. It could be that there really is some freak coming after you in your dreams; or, it could be that it’s just a dream and nothing more. Either way…I say we whack the fucker, just in case.” And then I’d have her draw a picture of the creep that’s scaring her, and we’d hurl all kinds of abusive language at him in Set’s good name. We’d stick pins in his ass and chop him up into little pieces; then we’d throw him in the fireplace and watch the little bastard burn. Call me superstitious if you like, but like the Akkadians, I don’t believe in taking any chances with this kind of stuff. No kid should ever have to face a monster alone like Nancy does in Nightmare on Elm Street.
(If it seems crazy that I’m talking about the things that happen in Nightmare like they’re real, I’d like to point out that the film is partially inspired by true events. During the 1970s, director Wes Craven read an article in the L.A. Times about a group of Khmer refugees who were living in the United States, and whose children were having nightmares that disturbed them so badly, they refused to sleep. Some of them later died in their sleep, and it was as if they had known they would die if they didn’t stay awake. This story disturbed Craven to his core, and it later became his main inspiration for writing Nightmare. Craven has also said that he took inspiration for the film from certain Buddhist and Taoist ideas, and anyone who’s ever listened to the man talk will know that he actually believed in some kind of spirit world.)
The Nancy Thompson character is easily the best thing about this film; in fact, she’s the very best “Final Girl” since Laurie Strode in Halloween and Ellen Ripley in Alien (1979). Unlike Laurie, she becomes aware of her nemesis early in the film and she actively hunts him down; and unlike Ripley, she has no weapons aside from her own determination and resourcefulness. Nancy eventually discovers that if she holds on to something in her dreams while she’s waking up, she can bring it over to the real world. She decides to conduct this extremely dangerous experiment with Krueger, and when it proves successful, the tables are immediately turned. Freddy finds himself at Nancy’s mercy, suffering every form of abuse the teenager can throw at him; he even becomes afraid of her at one point. And considering just how slimy a character Freddy really is, it feels really good to see him get his comeuppance this way.
This humiliation of the antagonist is a recurring theme in many of Wes Craven’s films (including 1972’s The Last House on the Left, 1977’s The Hills Have Eyes, 1988’s The Serpent and the Rainbow, 1991’s The People Under the Stairs, and 1996’s Scream). There’s almost always a transition point in these movies where the surviving victims gain some kind of advantage over the villains, and the villains become blubbering, pathetic fools. I believe Craven’s intention here was to demonstrate that while evil may often seem very powerful and formidable, it only has as much power as we allow it to have. When we take that power back, evil is revealed for the frail and empty little thing that it really is. And in the original script for Nightmare on Elm Street, that is exactly what happens; Nancy defeats Freddy Krueger by taking back all the energy she’s put into him with her fear, and his spirit is dissolved back into the Void forever.
My only criticism of A Nightmare on Elm Street is the fact that its ending was sloppily changed at the last minute, and for purely commercial reasons. Nancy defeats Krueger, and all seems well; but then she realizes she’s actually having another nightmare, and the rotten bastard gets her after all. This ending always leaves a very bad taste in my mouth. They go through the entire movie developing this really likable character who’s noble and strong and who succeeds in defeating (and even humiliating) the villain; then they pull the rug out from under her at the last minute just to give the audience one last jump scare. Granted, it scared the hell out of me when I first saw this film as a kid; but as an adult who’s digested the rest of Wes Craven’s work, I can see just how “un-Cravenian” that ending really is. As it turns out, Craven had a major dispute with Nightmare’s producer, Robert Shaye, who wanted a scary ending to set the stage for a sequel. Craven eventually gave in to Shaye’s demands just so they could finish making the film. I think this was an unfortunate choice on Craven’s part, as it prevents Nightmare from being a truly perfect film; but the rest of the film holds up remarkably well, even after 30 years, so at least there’s that.
When you stop to think about it, sleep really is kind of a scary thing. If we hold to the Cartesian definition of existence (i.e., “I think, therefore I am”), we technically cease to “exist” for a while when we aren’t awake. Sure, our bodies are still there and our brains continue to function; but we don’t really “think” in the normal sense of the term, since we aren’t conscious. So in a way, we all become like Schrödinger’s Cat when we’re asleep; we’re neither alive nor dead, and we only collapse back into a solid state of reality when we regain our capacity for conscious self-reflection. We’re extremely vulnerable while we’re in this state (both physically and otherwise), and this is partly what the Egyptians were getting at with their tales about Ra being menaced by
Apep in the Underworld each night. By attacking Ra, Apep isn’t just posing a cosmic threat against the Creator; it’s also posing a personal threat against all creatures that sleep and dream.
Nancy Thompson’s struggle with Freddy Krueger is a perfect representation of this principle, especially since it’s built upon fears that many cultures traditionally associate with sleep.
Apep and Krueger are both astral monsters that try to kill living things while they regenerate (whether this means a sleeping Creator or a sleeping human). Both attempt to kill the future (whether by preventing the dawn or by murdering kids). Both thrive when the good do nothing (whether this is due to a paralyzing gaze or a conspiracy of silence). And both are easily overpowered once you learn how to see through their tricks (whether this is achieved by a badass Thunder God or a plucky suburban teenager). In this way, I consider the character of Nancy Thompson to be a true daughter and warrior of Set.
Incidentally, here is a procedure you can use to help you feel a little more like Nancy Thompson when you need it most. If you ever get scared when you’re in bed at night, give this procedure a shot. No Freddy Kruegers can hold a candle to the awesome power of He Before Whom the Sky Shakes.
Get a blank sheet of paper and some red paint. (If you don’t have any red paint, you can use a pen with red ink.) Draw a donkey that’s facing left, and write the word “EOEOE” in the shape of triangle on its neck. Then write “LERTHEMINO” on its back, and write “SABAOTH” on its breast. Finally, write the name “ABRASAX” directly beneath the donkey’s hooves, so that it looks as if the donkey is “walking” on the word. You don’t have to be a great artist; even the simplest and most child-like scribbling will do. (In fact, the simpler and more child-like you can manage, the better.) Just make absolutely sure that you draw the donkey facing to the left and that you write the voces magicae (“words of power”) exactly as I’ve said. When you’re finished, your painting or drawing should look like this:
Next, place this painting or drawing in a folder or something else in which it can stay unfolded and flat. (Under no circumstances should you fold it or crumple it.) You must never let any sunlight touch this image you’ve created; it must always be kept in darkness. Once you’ve placed it inside a folder, place it under the mattress of your bed. Preferably, it should be sandwiched between your mattress and your springboard. If the negative energy in your home seems to be centered on someone else in the house (e.g., a child), place the folder under his or her mattress instead. You can make one of these donkey images for each person who lives and sleeps in your home, if you like. Just follow the exact same procedure for each one. Make sure you place the images in areas where they can’t be seen, where no sunlight can touch them, and where they’re close to you and your loved ones while you sleep. Keep them there for at least seven days and nights; you can feel free to remove them after that amount of time has passed.
Set’s relationship with His brother and/or nephew, the god Horus, and how my faith is influenced by Thelemic beliefs.
Horus is the god who is most often contrasted with Set, but there were actually several deities called by this name in ancient Egypt. Heru-Ur, Haroeris, or Horus the Elder is a god of the sky whose eyes are the sun and the moon. He is a son of the sky goddess Nut, and a brother to Osiris and Set. He often conflicts with the latter, but is reconciled with Big Red in the end. Indeed, Set and Heru-Ur are both said to help Osiris ascend the ladder of heaven to join with Ra in the Pyramid Texts. But Heru-Sa-Aset or Horus the Younger, the son of Isis snd Osiris, is Set’s nephew who seeks revenge for Osiris’ death; He is the Horus who is more often referenced in popular culture today. And then there’s Ra-Horakhti, the Horus of the Two Horizons (East and West), who is a composite of Heru-Ur with the solar Creator deity, Ra.
Each of the various Horuses is firmly linked with falcons, solar imagery, and the Pharaohs, who were considered to be incarnations of the god (regardless of which “Horus” was being worshiped at the time). Each Horus also has a rocky relationship with Set and is said to either “castrate” Him or amputate His “foreleg” after Set “blinds” them in one eye. Either we are dealing with different gods sharing several synchronicities here, or we’re dealing with one god who has manifested under slightly different forms in numerous alternate timelines (sort of like how Jon Pertwee and Jodie Whittaker are both Doctor Who). Some Egyptologists and Kemetic Pagans seem to take the former of these two positions, and I believe they are likely correct. But I personally lean toward the latter position myself. Perhaps the “Horus” I have personally experienced is really a composite of several gods that answer to this name; and perhaps this composite has been influenced by Thelema as much as it has by Kemeticism.
Thelema is a religion started by Aleister Crowley, who had several powerful experiences in Cairo, Egypt in April 1904. These events were catalyzed by the Stele of Ankh-ef-en-Khonsu (otherwise known as Crowley’s “Stele of Revealing”), which was on exhibit at the Egyptian Museum of Cairo (serendipitously registered as Exhibit #666, no less). Ankh-ef-en-Khonsku’s Stele is a painted piece of wood with a vibrant image of the priest presenting gifts to Ra-Horakhti. This beautiful work caused first Rose Edith Kelly, Crowley’s wife, and then Crowley himself to receive prophetic messages from Aiwass, an angel of Horus, who revealed to them the text of Liber AL vel Legis (the Book of the Law). In this text, the goddess Nuit (Nut), the god Hadit (or Horus of Behudeti, identified with Ra as the midday sun) and the god Ra-Hoor-Khuit (Crowley’s rendering of Ra-Horakhti) together declare the beginning of a New “Aeon.”
The new Law proclaimed by the gods in Liber AL is this:
“Do what thou Wilt shall be the whole of the Law;
Love is the Law, Love under Will.”
People often assume this statement justifies doing whatever one likes, regardless of consequence; but I read it to mean something more like, “The highest priority in life is to find your true destiny and follow it; to truly love yourself (and not in a narcissistic sense) is the highest law.” Thelemites believe “Every man, woman and child is a star,” and that the way to “worship” Horus in his New Aeon is to bring out that glowing hot ball of light inside your soul and let it shine for all to see. Separating our fleeting, day-to-day desires from our everlasting True Wills can take years of reflection, and the rituals Crowley devised for Thelema are meant to facilitate this process of discretion in a powerful way.
There are some big problems with all of this, the most obvious being that Aleister Crowley was an abusive, racist, misogynist prick. He endangered many people’s lives, especially at his infamous “Abbey of Thelema” in Sicily (where he and his followers lived in unsanitary conditions, leading to at least one death), and during his ill-fated 1902 expedition of Mount Everest with Oscar Eckenstein. For a guy who liked preaching about the absolute divinity and autonomy of self, he sure was an authoritarian bully; he even enjoyed being called “the Great Beast 666” and “the Wickedest Man in the World.” He considered himself to be the spirit of Therion incarnate; and given that Therion is the archetypal evil ruler who brings ruin to his own people, I think he did a pretty good job of emulating that presence.
Why in Nut’s starry bosom would Horus (or any convergence of Horuses) choose such a horrible role model to herald the dawn of his (or their) New Aeon? I think the secret to this may lie in how the concept of Thelema resembles the Egyptian principle of Ma’at. Written in hieroglyphs as an ostrich feather, Ma’at is both a goddess and an action. As a deity, she sets the order of the seasons, the movements of the stars, and the times of birth and death for all creatures. As an action, Ma’at is doing whatever is right, whatever is just, whatever is well-balanced. To uphold Ma’at in all of one’s affairs is to procure Ma’at and good fortune for oneself, both in this world and the next. A person’s fate in the afterlife depended on how much Ma’at was in their heart (shown as a Weighing of the Heart against an ostrich feather, with the idea being that your heart must weigh the same as Ma’at). This concept is tied to both one’s personal destiny and what people call “the Golden Rule,” and I think the same is equally true of Thelema.
Thelema teaches we can live harmoniously by following our true, Higher Wills, since no True Will can supposedly cross any other in the grand scheme of things. Crowley totally sucked at exemplifying this, but it does echo the idea of doing right by yourself and others so we can all enjoy a good life and afterlife. While the Egyptians had the Pharaohs to dispense Ma’at throughout the Two Lands for them, the Horus(es) in Liber AL seem(s) to charge every single individual with the task of dispensing Ma’at everywhere. You might say Horus/Hadit/Ra-Hoor-Khuit effectively democratizes the role of Pharaoh for everyone, so that everyone can recognize themselves as a royal demigod in their own right.
I think the gods wanted everyone to see just how bad things can get if we let our individualized Pharaonic power go straight to our heads. Like the heretic king, Akhenaten, who put his obsession with one particular god (the Aten or Sun Disk) over his duty to defend all his people and their gods, Crowley prioritized his own ego over being a good role model for the Aeon. This cost him dearly in the long run, but it’s almost like he did all the wrong things so we can know what not to do by his example, without having to learn it the hard way. Crowley’s ideas have influenced not only Thelemites, but also quite a few Pagans, Qabalists, Satanists, Chaos Magicians, and rock musicians (the Beatles, David Bowie, Black Sabbath, Led Zeppelin, and many others). It seems to me that Horus (or some version thereof) truly did work through Crowley somehow, for the man certainly made a difference despite all his faults.
I have not personally interacted with any Horus(es) in my own spiritual journey, or at least not in the devotional sense of actually worshiping him/them. But his/their relationship with Set is still an important theological consideration. The dichotomy of a god of light and a god of darkness being sworn enemies is nothing new to most religions; but the idea that both sides are evenly matched, that neither side is perfect, and that both must eventually get along is uniquely Egyptian. Greek adaptations of this story rewrote the ending so that Set is either destroyed or cast out from the pantheon entirely; but with all due respect to Herodotus and Plutarch, I simply don’t accept such accounts as “canon.” The Egyptian civilization lasted roughly 3,600 years, and Set was never completely demonized until well after the first 2,800. Egypt was an occupied territory by that time, being deprived of its own government and culture; and what was remembered of the old ways had been garbled and syncretized with Greek influences. For thousands of years prior to that, the official story was always that Set and Horus are reconciled in the end.
Appropriations of Egyptian mythology (like Alex Proyas’ 2016 film, Gods of Egypt) insist on forcing Horus and Set into a Christian-based “good versus evil” dichotomy; but this runs contrary to the source material. Recall that Set doesn’t kill Osiris until after He finds out that His sister-wife, Nephthys, slept with him. According to some accounts, Nephthys truly loves Osiris and Set truly loves Isis, but neither can be with the mate of Their choice; They are paired together as an afterthought because nobody else wants to be with either of Them. Is it any wonder, then, that Nephthys eventually sleeps with Osiris to bear a child (Anubis), the one thing She wants more than anything? And is it any wonder that when He finds out, Set loses His shit and goes crazy? Mind you, Horus isn’t exactly an innocent little choir boy, either. One of the more shocking moments in the story is when Horus captures Set and prepares to kill Him, but Isis releases Big Red because He’s still her brother and she loves him. Then Horus goes apeshit and decapitates his mother in a fit of blind rage. (Thankfully Isis is healed by Thoth, who gives her a cow’s head; but still.) So I’m afraid this idea that Horus is the “Jesus” to Sutekh’s “Satan” just doesn’t wash.
My attempt at writing a Setian Creation myth that someone living in the ancient city of Nubt (Ombos or Naqada) might have believed.
People are often surprised to learn that the Egyptians developed more than one Creation myth. Each priesthood had its own ideas of how the universe was created, and of who created it. They each considered the divinities they were separately assigned to worship as supreme. Hence why the priesthood of Iunu or Heliopolis taught that Atum-Ra created the universe by ejaculating it from themself, while the priesthood of Khmun or Hermopolis thought it all began with a convergence of the Ogdoad (i.e., eight primordial gods). The priests of Mennefer or Memphis believed Ptah created the world by commanding it to exist, while the priests of Waset or Thebes were convinced that Amun was the Creator. These are the four most popular schools of thought when it comes to Egyptian theology.
There were far more cosmogonies in Egyptian religion than just these four, however. There is one in which the goddess Neith gives birth to the universe, while another cites Geb (Father Earth) as the demiurge. There is even a version of events where Sobek, the crocodile god, gives birth to the sun. If you’re wondering how the Egyptians could have tolerated having so many different Creation myths, it’s because they conceptualized religion very differently than we do today. As far as they were considered, each of these stories is simultaneously true; they are simply different ways of telling the same tale. In this way, it’s almost as if the Egyptians predicated the “many worlds” interpretation of quantum mechanics.
Set’s worship goes all the way back to the predynastic era (to 3200 BCE at least, when our northern pole star was still Thuban in the constellation Draco). This means Set was worshiped in Egypt long before the Pharaohs came along. His cult appears to have originally been centered in an Upper Egyptian gold-mining town called Nubt, which is also known as Ombos in Greek and Naqada in Arabic. The people of Nubt had a temple that was dedicated to Set, and it stands to reason that this temple would have been maintained by a priesthood. It also stands to reason that the members of this sect would have had their own ideas of how Creation occurred, and that Set would have played a central role in this ideology. Unfortunately, there are no written records to indicate what such a cosmogony might have been like; the temple of Set in Nubt no longer stands, and whatever secrets it once held are now lost to us forever.
I don’t claim to know who really created the universe or how, and I actually don’t care about this question all that much. It’s enough for me to put my trust in Set, and to enjoy and give thanks for His blessings. Yet it has always bugged me a little how the only Egyptian Creation story you ever seem to hear about is the Heliopolitan cosmogony. The roles that were assigned to Set in this schematic (great-grandson to Ra; grandson to Shu and Tefnut; son to Geb and Nut; brother to Osiris, Isis, and Nephthys) were given to Him at a comparatively later point in Egyptian history, and they only reflect how He was understood by the Heliopolitans. What would a citizen of Ombos have been raised to think? What kinds of roles and relationships would Set have been given by Ombite theologians?
There is really no way to answer such questions, but the following is my attempt at imagining what an Ombite Creation myth might have looked like. Please keep in mind, however, that this is not intended to be read as any kind of dogmatic scripture. This was not supernaturally revealed to me by Set, and He has never once told me anything like, “BELIEVE THIS STORY, IT’S ABSOLUTELY TRUE, OR I WILL KILL YOU.” Big Red certainly inspired me to write this, but it is really just a thought experiment, and I hope it will either be accepted, critiqued, and/or improved upon as such.
I’ve tried to make this seem like something a person living in predynastic Nubt might have actually believed; so there are no references to Horus or Osiris, given that those stories did not develop until after the unification of Egypt. Here I refer only to divinities whom we know were worshiped or at least recognized either in Ombos itself, or in some of its closest neighbors (including the cities of Abdju/Abydos, Gebtu/Coptos, and Waset/Thebes). Aside from Set, His mother Nut, and the hippo goddess Taweret, this narrative also includes Sobek, Montu (the Theban sun god of war), Raet (a Theban sun goddess), Min (the Coptic god of fertility and sexuality), Aset/Isis, and Khenti-Amentiu (a jackal god of the dead who was worshiped in Abydos, and who might or might not be an earlier form of Anubis, Wepwawet, or Osiris). The order in which the gods are born is based on how their stars are arranged in the sky. Set, Taweret, and Sobek come first because the Great Bear, Draco, and the Little Dipper are in the celestial north; Montu and Raet are next since the Zodiac is beneath these constellations; and Min and Aset follow since Orion and Sirius are beneath the Zodiac. With all that being said, I now humbly submit the following.
Before the Dawn of Time, there was nothing else but the goddess Nut. She was alone, and her infinite black body was not yet tattooed with stars. Everything which now exists was still one with Nut, and since there was nothing else with which she could be compared, everything was nothing. All was Nut, and Nut was all.
But then a powerful hunger awoke within the body of the goddess, a craving for existence rather than nothingness. So powerful was this force that it grew and grew within Nut until it could no longer be contained. This new force then exploded from Nut’s side, cleaving her in twain and becoming the Red God, Set. In this way, the Dawn of Time began not with the first dawn (as the priests of Atum teach their children in Iunu), but with the first storm.
One part of Nut descended and became her brother Geb, upon whose body we now live. The other half remained above and became Mother Sky. Set was still attached to Nut by His navel string, but He cut the string with His iron phallus and was freed. He then roamed the body of Geb, spreading desolation and dust wherever He went. His navel string did not fade away, but became angry and attacked the Red God. Thus did the evil thing become
Apep, the Chaos Serpent, which seeks to return all of Nut’s children to her womb and make her miscarry for all time.
Apep eventually attacked Set and castrated Him with its horrible teeth. The Red God roared in pain, but would not be defeated; He merely retrieved His iron phallus, forged it into a massive Scimitar, and hacked the Serpent into pieces. Yet did the monster regenerate itself, with all of its pieces coming back together save one. That one remaining piece grew to become the goddess Taweret, who fell in love with Set and joined Him in battling the Serpent.
Taweret also restrained Set by chaining His Scimitar to the navel of Nut. In this way, Taweret established Ma’at and made it possible for life to develop upon the body of Geb. She and Set then became the Great Hippopotamus (Draco) and the Foreleg (Ursa Major) in the northern sky. Such is how the Red God was tamed to become the defender of our world. His war against
Apep will rage for all time; were it not for Set’s grace, the Serpent would swallow us all.
Some time later, Taweret made Herself pregnant and gave birth to Sobek, who appears as the Great Crocodile (Ursa Minor) in heaven. Sobek descended to Geb and created Iteru (the Nile), the first river; then he laid a gigantic egg in what is now Waset. When this egg hatched, the sun deities Montu and Raet came forth. Then, in what is now Gebtu, Montu and Raet brought forth Min and Aset. Together, these four divinities created all life upon the body of Geb. Finally, Min and Aset gave birth to Khenti-Amentiu, who guides the dead to safety in Duat.
The people of Waset praise Montu as the Creator, and the people of Gebtu praise Min. But we who live here in Nubt know that Set is the One who truly started it all. Our humble little town is where He first stepped foot on Geb. He has blessed our people with the gold that we mine from the hills, as well as with the surrounding desert that preserves our Blessed Dead. It is our sacred duty to offer food, drink, and pottery to the Red God at the House we have built for Him here; let those in other towns appease the other Netjeru.
Set does not play by Christian rules, Satanist rules, or Marvel Cinematic Universe rules, and neither do Setians.
Growing up in Protestant America during the 20th century, I was trained to view any divinity apart from the biblical god as either a “false idol” or “the devil.” Even being raised by nominally Christian parents, it was impossible to escape such mental conditioning. This really became an issue for me when I came to Set in 1997. As His presence grew stronger and I realized I was a Setian, people told me everything about this was “demonic.” Some were willing to accept that my god doesn’t really fit into that scheme, and that He marches to a completely different theological beat. But I wasn’t so great at explaining these things back then, and even the people who listened to me weren’t getting the full story.
The people who weren’t willing to listen didn’t care, concluding I was simply insane, possessed, or both. It especially hurt when I encountered this attitude from other Pagans, and it made me oversensitive to the subjects of Christ and Satan for quite some time. I don’t feel too ashamed about this, as there was not exactly a “surplus” of mature Setian adults for me to learn from as a kid. I had to learn how to conduct myself on my own; and while it was rough, I think I turned out OK. I know there are others who have dealt with similar growing pains too, and I just want to say you are not alone.
Since “khepering” from the rowdy Typhonian foal I once was to the generally grouchy but more agreeable jackass I am today, I gained access to better literature on Set and learned some things that mellowed me out on this stuff. And I met other people who really did learn to accept me as I am, including not only other Setians, but Pagans, atheists, agnostics, and even some born-again Christians too. I even re-learned to enjoy Alice Cooper after discovering he’s an evangelical! Just what the hell (or heaven) happened? Well, first I learned of Set’s appearances in the Greek magical papyri. He is not only called Typhon or Seth in these texts, but also things like Ablanathanalba, Lerthemino, and Kolchoi Tontonton. No one really knows what most of these “barbarous names” or voces magicae actually mean; but a few have been translated, including two that are important to this discussion: Iao Sabaoth and Aberamentho.
Iao Sabaoth is a Hellenized corruption of a name for the Hebrew god, who was identified with Set by Greco-Egyptian syncretists. In the earliest years CE, the polytheist world reacted to both Jehovah and Set the same way the monotheist world reacts to Satan today. Some thought the God of Israel is really Big Red in disguise, and that Jews were actually “descendants” of Set. As far as most people knew or cared, Setians and Jews were both serving an evil god that demands we have sex with donkeys, cannibalize kids, and poison local wells to spread plagues. This is one of the earliest records of blood libel, or the accusation that a minority community is committing ritualized terrorism and/or child or animal abuse. This trope shaped not only the European witch hysterias, but also contemporary urban folklore like the Satanic Panic. Conspiracy lovers still believe there is a global cabal of Satan-worshiping witches engaging in unspeakable acts, and Jews and Pagans are both still conflated with this fictitious anti-religion today.
Aberamentho means “Lord of the Waters,” which likely refers to Set sublimating and controlling the Chaos Serpent. Yet it also appears in the Pistis Sophia—a Gnostic text that was contemporary to the Greek magical papyri and the New Testament—as a name for Christ. It likely refers to St. John’s belief in Jesus as the Logos, the mystical Word, which was with IHVH before Genesis begins. In a similar way, I feel that Set and the other Netjeru were all with Ra at the Dawn of Time. I think Set is the aspect of Ra that empowered them to kheper in the first place, starting the cosmic chain of transformations that is Creation. Two savior gods who both pre-existed the universe, and who are both vital to how the cosmos functions.
The Alexamenos Graffito
And then there’s the Alexamenos graffito, scrawled on a wall to shame a Roman soldier for being Christian. It shows the poor guy praying to a cruciform donkey-headed Jesus, and it’s the earliest known image of the god at present. Christians had to meet for worship in spooky catacombs at night for fear of literally being thrown to the lions. Their polytheist neighbors saw them as lunatics worshiping an executed cult leader, and the idea of the Eucharist led to accusations of cannibalism. While the Alexamenos image does not refer to Set directly, He is implicit in the form of Christ’s equine head. Donkeys are sacred to Set, and they were maligned, abused, and murdered for this very reason at the time. So to draw someone with a donkey’s head was to vilify them, not unlike drawing someone with goat horns today.
The graffito spooked me when I first saw it, for I had seen a vision that closely resembled it during one of my earliest Sabbat rituals back in 1998. I would stay up late on Friday nights, quietly invoking Set, playing some metal for Him and talking to Him through the night. Sometimes I meditated, and on one occasion, I saw Big Red in a loincloth, being crucified by an angry mob. He had a Sha’s head, not a donkey’s; but He was being nailed to a cross just the same. For years, I thought this was just some brief artistic fancy; but while the Alexamenos graffito is not an exact duplicate of this vision, the resemblance was immediate and very shocking to me when I finally saw it in late 2007. I remember having to sit down, in fact, and someone asked me if anything was wrong (“No man, my head is just exploding!!”).
There have even been times when Set and Jesus seemed to intersect for me in bizarre ways. My mother-in-law was a deeply religious born-again Christian, and she had trouble making heads or tails of my belief system when we first met. But years later, when she was hospitalized for an injury, she had an experience with Set in her hospital bed. After that point, she and I shared a special bond where it was like Set and Jesus could be “buddies” through us. When she passed away in 2015, my Ma-in-Law asked me to pray for her; I told her to go with Jesus to his heaven, and I asked Set to clear her path of all obstacles. It was not exactly a pleasant event to experience, but it was very sacred to be sure.
I am not a fan of how Set is usually treated in most Satanist literature I’ve seen. The scholarship is usually both sloppy and full of confirmation bias; every effort is made to “prove” that Satan “came from” Set, and nothing is ever mentioned about how Set was also identified with Yahweh and Christ. I’ve had people get really upset at me for even mentioning these things, as well. They don’t want Set to be a multifaceted god who can get along with either Jesus and/or Satan whenever He might feel like it; they just want Him to be a fallen angel in Egyptian drag. But this overly dualist mindset is completely alien to the Egyptian way of thinking. Set does not play by Christian rules, Satanist rules, or Marvel Cinematic Universe rules, and it’s not His problem if anyone else is upset by this; nor is it mine.
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.
On being a priest of Set and a Pagan minister, and what spiritual leadership should (and shouldn’t) look like.
I occasionally receive inquiries about how I came to be ordained, and how others might do the same. Here is my best attempt at distilling all my thoughts on this matter, in one convenient place.
People often refer to the concepts of “priesthood” and “religious ministry” as if they were interchangeable, but I prefer to distinguish between these two functions very carefully. The assumption that a minister is always a priest and vice versa is rooted in the monotheist premise that people in the same religious community will always follow the same god, and it is inappropriate to hold Pagans to this standard.
- In a polytheist context at least, priesthood is the act of serving one or more particular deities with regular rituals and/or offerings, by studying their lore, and by helping others understand them as necessary. It is a devotional occupation that is all about doing something for a god or a pantheon, or their followers.
- Ministry, in my opinion, has less to do with serving any gods in particular, and more to do with serving human beings. It is an act of community service that is mostly about helping people legally marry, procure good fortune, and/or memorialize their dead. These are practical issues that all kinds of people need help with, regardless of which god(s) they prefer to acknowledge (if any).
So when I officiate a wedding, bless a baby, or eulogize somebody’s ancestor, I am serving strictly as a minister. I don’t care if the people I help believe in any deity or not, and I will even tailor my services to reflect their beliefs (within reason, of course). Theology is only a point for discussion when it comes to my services for Set, which I see as fulfilling a more priestly role. While a person can certainly be a minister and a priest at the same time (as with most monotheist clergy), in Paganism you can also be just one or the other, or even alternate between the two as necessary.
I should clarify that I am not recognized as a priest in any particular congregation apart from my own, and that others are welcome to dispute my use of this term as they see fit. I would hope that all the work I have done so far will prove I sincerely do my best to live up to the label, and that I am not just some occultnik hack. Our coven might only consist of four people, but I’m confident enough in our shared experiences not to care too much if other groups consider us “legitimate” or not. We have little interest in increasing our own numbers, since we don’t believe anyone should have to join any sect, pay any dues, or kiss any hiney to learn about the mighty Champion of Ra. Hence my insistence on publishing everything I write about the Big Guy for free; everything in this ongoing work (such as it may be) is a votive offering not only to Him, but to all my fellow Setians as well. It is hoped that others will find the material helpful enough in some manner, even if we must agree to disagree on certain points.
As we LV-426 initiates reached adulthood, two of us decided to get married (not to each other, but to our own separate sweethearts). And since we manifest Set’s rebellious disposition so nicely, neither of us was willing to appease either of our extended families by conceding to a conventional Christian wedding ceremony, or even to a more secular procedure at a local courthouse. For this reason, I was legally ordained in the Universal Life Church Monastery so I could officiate a ceremony to my Sister Bean’s liking, and we enlisted another minister from the Monastery to officiate my own ceremony. Since then, I’ve officiated ceremonies for other couples who needed it, without concern for whether they are Setian or Pagan, and without charging any fees. Apart from working execrations, blessing a few newborns, and the one time I administered last rites for someone, weddings represent the bulk of my ministerial experience at present.
The ULC Monastery is one of those “anything goes” churches that ordains anyone who signs up for free. Such institutions are often viewed as “shams” by more traditional churches, which have huge populations and generate enough (tax-exempt) revenue to fund things like Bible colleges and theological seminaries, where they can actually send their clergy to be trained. Pagans do not enjoy anything close to the same numbers or resources that Christians enjoy, making it much harder for us to successfully launch our own churches (let alone seminaries) and keep them going. While it is not a Pagan church specifically, the Monastery makes it possible for covens like ours to enjoy the benefits of ordination without paying a shit-ton of money we don’t have to some institution we don’t even agree with. This seems only fair to us, given that we don’t own any property as a group, we have no treasury to speak of, we don’t request or accept monetary donations from anyone, and we certainly don’t charge each other any membership fees.
There are other multifaith churches that offer more conventional ordinations, such as the Universal Unitarian Church. Some Pagans I know have enrolled in such ministries to benefit from the training they offer. It’s a lot of hard work, and I have the utmost respect for anyone who chooses to go through that process. I’ve always lacked the time and the money to do it myself, and while I work well with authority in a strictly business context, this is not the case when it comes to religion. My faith is the one area in life where I get to have absolute control, and I chafe with resentment when I feel like that control is being restricted. However, I don’t wish to discourage anyone else from considering options like the UU. Online ordination has served my purposes pretty well thus far, but it is not the best option for everyone, and I wish nothing but the best for those who endeavor to graduate from more structured ministerial programs.
That being said, I fully disclose that I am not a licensed counselor or social worker, and that I am ill-equipped to handle some of the issues ministers in other faiths are trained to deal with. I do, however, work in a field relating to public health, and whenever I meet someone who needs help to such an extent, I always refer them to licensed (and preferably secular) professionals. I don’t milk them for all they’re worth like some televangelist faith healer. I also don’t fuck around with people’s safety, and if I think someone might be extremely dangerous to either themselves or others, I will report any evidence I find to the appropriate authorities. There are traditional organized churches that train their ministers in all kinds of ways, but which also harbor and protect obvious evildoers among their own leadership. So whenever I hear more privileged faiths poo-poo the idea of online ordination, it just tells me they hate minority religions and want to keep us down. Besides, my ministerial work is supplemental to my sacerdotal work anyway. While I do my best to help whomever I can whenever I can, I really do what I do for Set and for other Setians—which is to say, I identify as a Setian priest first and a Pagan minister second.
Piggybacking on a multifaith online church is certainly not an optimal method for circumventing the lack of legal equity between our various religious traditions; but starting my own church has never seemed like a practical idea. I doubt there would be that many people knocking down the door to join, and I am uncertain as to what I could really offer those who did. I also have serious ethical problems with how churches are allowed to become tax-exempt businesses, political interest groups, and safe havens for sex offenders in this country. Part of me would want any church I help launch to actually pay taxes, just as a matter of principle and accountability. But then again, there are many ways in which tax exemption is extremely helpful for Pagan churches that are already struggling to get by as it is; so I am conflicted on the matter. Until a better option presents itself, I’ll just make do with independently serving Set as a priest from LV-426, and with facilitating any ministerial work I might need to provide through the ULC Monastery.
While I take my work very seriously, I don’t claim to be some prophet who holds the keys to all the mysteries of the universe, and I am extremely critical of anyone else who does. Set demands self-determination, not blind obedience, and anything that infringes upon your personal sovereignty is anathema to Him. There are far too many priests and ministers (of all religions, including Paganism) who prey on the people they “help” for power, money, or sex. If someone demands that you give something of yourself that you don’t want to give—whether it’s your time, your money, your ability to think critically, or even your body—that is NOT OKAY. I don’t care what religion you are, Set’s gift of autonomy is for ALL sentient beings, and those who deprive others of this gift will become pet food for Ammut in the Underworld!
As a final note, I still occasionally meet other Pagans who think I must either talk backwards, eat babies, or spin my head around 360 degrees because I worship Set. With all due respect to experts in other fields: if the extent of your knowledge about Big Red is that He is the “Egyptian devil” or “god of evil,” then you are a LAYPERSON as far as He is concerned, and people like me are here to put you back in your lane. We aren’t going away any time soon, either; in fact, I reckon the 2020s will see more of us awakening to our true identities than ever before! Set is mighty, and so are we!
The word devil is really just as vague and complex as the word god, holding multiple meanings across the world. So when we “speak of the devil,” just what in hell are we actually speaking about?
Accusing someone of “worshiping the devil” is the easiest way to discredit their faith and beliefs. Pagans are no strangers to such accusations, and this is doubly true for Setians, Lokeans, and others who walk with the so-called “powers of darkness.” But the word devil is really just as vague and complex as the word god, holding multiple meanings for different people and cultures across the world. So when we “speak of the devil,” just what in hell are we actually speaking about?
The figure identified as “Satan” in popular culture is not 100% Christian in origin, but something more like a schizoid Frankenstein monster patched together from various religious traditions over the centuries. The ideas that people have about this figure today are not only influenced by biblical teachings, but by generations of militant Christian deculturalization as well. Most accusations of “Satanism” turn out to be nothing more than non-Christian religions upon closer inspection (or in especially ludicrous cases, they turn out to be any Christian denomination apart from one’s own). There are also several different versions of “Satan” referenced throughout popular culture, and people never seem to know which of these variants they happen to be discussing at any given time. The situation gets even more complex when we account for actual Satanist beliefs about the devil, which is a whole other kettle of elephantfish.
Satan as the Heavenly Prosecutor
Introduced to us in the biblical book of Job, this version of Satan is far less subversive than people commonly know. He is but a servant of the Israelite god, only committing the harms his maker allows him to commit. Tormenting humans, tempting them, and testing their faith in Yahweh is not an act of rebellion, but a service he provides at his maker’s behest. As such, the purest distillation of Satan in my opinion is simply the shadow side of monotheism itself. If the entire point of such belief is our submission to just one god (and our strict avoidance of all others), then naturally someone is needed to periodically test that allegiance. The way I see it, the Old Testament Satan represents the dark side of Jehovah himself; there is no other role for a devil that makes any theological sense in a purely monotheist context.
While I accept the Christian god as being ontologically real, I remain skeptical of his alleged omnipotence, omniscience, omnipresence, and omnibenevolence. I believe Yahweh and Jesus Christ both exist, but they are just two more finite gods occupying our shared multiverse, neither more nor less important or perfect than any other divinity in objective reality. I accept they are of central importance to their own followers, and I can see how Satan the Heavenly Prosecutor would figure largely in their personal value systems. But to “worship the devil” in this context seems equivalent to accepting a payoff from Mr. Slugworth, then learning the slick bastard was really working for Willy Wonka the whole damn time (but now you can’t have any chocolate!). In my experience, this version of the devil isn’t venerated by anyone (not even by real Satanists); people are only ever accused of trafficking with him by monotheists.
Satan as a Serpent, Dragon, or Gnostic Figure
In the book of Genesis, the first man and woman are deceived into disobeying Yahweh by a talking snake. Many people think of that snake as Satan, but it was never identified as such until New Testament times. By that point, Judaism and Christianity had both been influenced by such combat myths as the Babylonian Enuma Elish. These are tales of divine warriors battling monstrous serpents or dragons to create or save the world, and Set’s daily pre-dawn battle with
Apep is just one of many variants. Judaism already developed its own variant of this story in the figure of Leviathan, a sea monster that represents all human and supernatural defiance of Yahweh. (Leviathan originally comes from Phoenician mythology, in which it is sent to attack the Elohim by the daemon Yamm, who is battled by Set in the Edfu Texts.) So by the time Roman emperors started feeding Christians to lions for sport, the biblical idea of the Genesis snake had been firmly conflated with the polytheist Chaos Serpent, which seeks to end the universe. Hence the depiction of Satan as an apocalyptic “great red dragon” in the book of Revelation.
The Gnostics were Jewish and Christian heretics who lived during New Testament times, and who deviated from monotheism. They believed in not one but two gods: a benevolent god of pure spirit who transcends the physical universe, and an evil material god who keeps our souls trapped and miserable here on earth. Some viewed the Genesis snake as a messiah sent by the good god to free us from the prisons of our flesh. Mainstream Christians decided these people were “Satanists” for this reason, and some real life Satanists actually take their cues from Gnosticism as a result.
To be honest, I find Gnosticism troubling. It teaches that nature is soulless, and that human souls are alien not only to their surroundings, but to their own bodies as well. Such anti-cosmicism is really in vogue among left-hand path circles, which often re-define the Chaos Serpent as a kind of Gnostic savior figure. There are even Setians who engage in this, conflating Set with
Apep (which is predicated on Set’s demonization as the Greek Typhon circa 712–323 BCE). With all due respect to these people, I believe Setianism is about revering a god who is a part of nature, and who is absolutely essential to how the cosmos perpetuates itself. Qliphothic diabolism, on the other hand, is the adoration of something external or even hostile to nature (which contradicts the entire premise of honoring a Pagan god in the first place). Setians can combine their love for Set with any other spiritual traditions they like, and we do not need each other’s approval to do so. But to my mind at least, Set shares more similarities with Jesus Christ, the archangel Michael, and even Jehovah in this particular context (Aberamentho!) than He does with Satan.
(Mind you, I don’t believe Set is “angered” or “offended” by anyone identifying Him with the Serpent. He’s a big god, He’s got a thick proverbial skin, and I’m sure He has His reasons for interacting with folks like Kenneth Grant and Michael W. Ford. I fully admit I am likely more bothered by this subject than Set is Himself. My intent here is not to “shame” anyone into ditching their copies of Nightside of Eden or Sekhem
Apep, though I encourage people to at least consider the idea.)
Satan as Antichrist or the Great Beast 666
Again, there is a major biblical distinction between “the Antichrist” and “the Great Beast 666,” which is called Therion in Greek. Antichrist is basically the spirit of Christian hypocrisy itself, or the impulse to do un-Christian things in Christ’s name; Therion is the archetypal evil tyrant who brings disaster upon his own nation. The latter goes back to the primeval origins of human government, but Christians first met him in the guise of the Roman emperors, whom they considered to be satanically possessed (and for good reason). Somewhere down the line, Antichrist and Therion were blurred together into the same popular image: that of the devil’s half-human offspring, destined to set the world ablaze.
In this context, Satan is a metaphor for both Christian and political corruption. Anyone can be deceived by a corrupt politician, including Pagans; but the idea that we are out to cause the downfall of human civilization is just ridiculous. And accusing us of worshiping Christian hypocrisy makes no sense at all. People like Paula White, Creflo Dollar, Kenneth Copeland, Rod Parsley, and other “prosperity gospel” televangelists do a much better job of driving people away from Christ than Pagans ever could. No one does a better job of publicly glorifying Antichrist than these false ministers of Mammon.
As for Therion, there are reasons for thinking he might be enemies with Ishtar, who is my Holy Mother Goddess. Part of Ishtar’s role in ancient Babylon was to empower the kings and punish them severely if they failed to take good care of their people. Especially shitty rulers were offered as blood sacrifices to Her, demonstrating that She does not suffer tyrants lightly. Even the Bible seems to agree that the Great Beast and the “Whore of Babylon” despise each other (Revelation 17:15–18). So if someone accuses me of “worshiping Satan” in the sense of supporting the tyrannical persecution of Christians, they couldn’t be further from the truth. As a Pagan, I would prefer to live in a world where no one is ever persecuted for living the life they want to live, neither Pagans nor Christians nor anyone else.
But while Therion is a symbol of tyranny and persecution for Christians, he more often represents freedom, liberty, and self-empowerment for Satanists. This interpretation is not biblical, but is influenced by the teachings of Aleister Crowley, who actually claimed to be Therion incarnate. (Considering how oppressive and manipulative a person he was, I’m inclined to agree that Crowley was a perfect avatar for the Final Tyrant.) If we define Therion in a strictly Thelemic or Satanic context, I can see how the figure might be used to exemplify key Setian values like autonomy and self-ownership. But if we define him in the Christian context, I consider him anti-Setian and want nothing to do with him.
Satan as a Fallen Angel (“Lucifer”)
The devil’s most well-known origin story is that he was originally an angel in heaven named Lucifer. He tried to usurp his Creator’s throne, was cast down from heaven for his pride, and now rules his own kingdom down in hell. This story does not appear anywhere in the entire Bible; it’s actually a polytheist theme that was not fully absorbed into Satan’s demonology until the medieval era. (The reference to “Lucifer” in Isaiah is a shoddy Latin translation; the original Hebrew text refers to a mortal Babylonian king.) Prior to this, Lucifer was one of many polytheist gods identified with Venus, the Morningstar. The astronomical behaviors of this planet—keeping near the horizon; shining brightest at twilight; “defying” the sun by appearing just before dawn—led people to associate it with several uppity gods who subverted their elders. Each of these Venusian powers is linked with fire and fertility, as well as with death and resurrection. Females like Aphrodite and Inanna are usually successful in their rebellious designs, but their male counterparts are more often ruined and forced into exile, which brings us back to Lucifer.
There is no direct relation between Set and the Lucifer myth, but some people draw parallels between the two anyway. Set’s demonization can be likened to Lucifer’s fall from heaven; and then there’s the theme of Set defending Ra from
Apep in the Underworld just before sunrise. The idea of a rebellious Red God facilitating the sun’s rebirth can be linked with the theme of a “fallen angel” heralding the dawn. I must admit, however, that these associations are a bit of a stretch for me personally. Set has little to do with Venus, amd most other divinities who do are “dying-and-rising” figures. Set never dies, and He never “falls down” into the Underworld either; He just travels there every night with the Creator to serve as Ra’s personal bodyguard. This dynamic doesn’t really jive so well with the “Fuck God, I’d rather rule in hell!” attitude that Lucifer more often exemplifies. In my opinion, Set and Lucifer are two completely unrelated figures, though I can see how Big Red might bond with the latter as a drinking buddy.
The truth is that when I hear or read the word Lucifer, I think of ISHTAR and not Set. Lady Morningstar appears in my mind’s eye as a beautiful angel with raven-black hair and wings, shining with unbridled fury. I can’t help but root for Her as She tricks Ea into giving Her the powers of civilization; as She descends into the Netherworld to face Her sister Ereshkigal; as She slays Her ungrateful husband Tammuz to take Her place in hell; and as She rages against that insolent megalomaniac, Gilgamesh. Ishtar’s resemblance to the biblical “Whore of Babylon” is famous, but She also resembles a female Lucifer who (unlike the more popular male version) generally succeeds in getting Her way. So if anyone accuses me of “worshiping Lucifer,” my first reaction is not to deny the accusation, but to correct it. (“My Angel of Light is a Lady, so if you absolutely have to call Her something in Latin, it really ought to be Lucifera!”)
Satan as a Horned God
By far, the most well-known version of the devil is that of a wooly goatman who frolicks with witches in the dead of night. This motif developed well after the Protestant Reformation, when the European witch hysterias reached their apex. It has no biblical basis, but is instead a synthesis of Protestant reactions to Judaism, Catholicism, several medieval Christian heresies, and numerous polytheist folk traditions. Much has already been said of how the devil’s horns and cloven hooves were appropriated from the Greek satyr god Pan, who similarly enjoys frolicking with nymphs at night. But there are actually several gods who were absorbed into this devil, not just Pan. Virtually every culture has acknowledged some kind of nocturnal horned god who digs raunchy, bacchanalian rites; and it is here that I experience the most trouble with my surrounding culture. As with most people, this is the “Satan” I always think of first whenever anyone brings up “the devil.” Society has drilled it into me since birth that horned, hoofed goatmen are supposed to be “evil”; and yet this imagery is quite sacred and inspirational to me personally.
Set is just one of the many gods whose imagery was appropriated for this version of Satan (thanks to the Coptic Church). We see this in Set’s affinity for nighttime, the color red, and such horned Artiodactyla as oryx and antelope. We can also see it in His attraction to goddesses who defy conventional gender roles (Taweret, Ishtar, Nephthys, Anat, etc.). And then there’s the fact that He is the god of wilderness, deserts, and other places beyond human civilization. From the moment I first met Him back in 1997, I have always felt compelled to honor Set out in the woods at night; so I identify with the Horned God image pretty strongly. For this reason, my brain does two things whenever people talk about “Satan” around me (whether it’s in conversations about religion, horror movies, or heavy metal music):
- It immediately conjures up a Horned God image.
- It immediately translates the name Satan into SET.
Some claim that the Hebrew word Satan is etymologically derived from Set’s name (via “Set-Hen” or some variant thereof). There is no evidence to support this assertion; yet it speaks to a very real Setian emotional experience. Some of us (myself included) first come to Set without fully understanding who or what He really is. Some don’t even know that much about ancient Egypt when He first calls them; they might realize there’s this spooky nocturnal Red God speaking to their souls, but that’s it. Setians in these situations often have little choice but to conceptualize themselves as “Satanists” when they first answer the call. (What the hell else are we supposed to do when society tells us that’s exactly what we are, and we don’t know any different?) Some may continue to identify as such for life; remember, Setian beliefs are not limited to Kemeticism, but can also intersect with other religious traditions (including Satanism and Christianity, both). Still others may discard “Satan” into the proverbial wastebasket once they develop a more Kemetic understanding of Big Red. (I can’t tell you how much better I felt once I achieved this for myself.)
Here’s an example of what I mean about my brain “translating” the Horned God motif into Set. One of my favorite bands is the Danish metal group Mercyful Fate, fronted by King Diamond. One of their greatest songs is “The Oath” from their 1984 album, Don’t Break the Oath. The lyrics of the song are partially adapted from Dennis Wheatley’s 1960 novel, The Satanist, which features a so-called “black mass.” But whenever I listen to this song, here is how my brain translates the lyrics:
Here is a link to the original song by Mercyful Fate, for anyone who might be interested.
It might seem odd that anyone would appropriate Satanic symbolism for a Pagan god (as opposed to simply rejecting such iconography altogether); but the way I see it, this is a perfectly logical thing for Pagans to do in our contemporary environment. Christians came along, wrested control of our religious narratives, and indoctrinated entire generations into thinking our various horned gods are really “the devil.” So it seems only right that Pagans, in turn, should appropriate “the devil” and turn it back into something positive that we can use for our own purposes, as demonstrated in the graphic above.
Satan as a Romantic Anti-Hero
From the 17th to the 19th centuries, serious belief in Satan had waned throughout the West, with the figure seldom appearing in any religious context. During this period, he was more often seen in works of art, literature, folklore, and political philosophy. Several artists, writers, and even radical leftists invoked the devil in their works as a sympathetic rebel against tyranny (personified by the Christian god). John Milton’s epic poem Paradise Lost is only the most prominent example; others include various works by William Godwin, Lord Byron, Percy Bysshe Shelley, Pierre-Joseph Proudhon, Mikhail Bakunin, and even Mark Twain. And since the point of this artistic movement was to encourage freethinking (for which Satan was thought to be the perfect symbol), it has since become known as “literary Satanism.”
It always confuses people to learn that mainstream Satanist groups like the Church of Satan and the Satanic Temple don’t actually “worship the devil” per se, but are atheists. This makes a great deal more sense when we remember that such groups are really descended from the literary Satanism movement. Anton LaVey didn’t take his Satan from the Bible; he drew him from Paradise Lost and other similar works. The point is not to be a “devil worshiper” but to actually become an arch-rebel oneself, in the flesh. While the chosen terminology might frighten outsiders, the whole thing amounts to little more than thinking rationally, challenging authority, and championing personal liberty, which I think are values most people can agree with. There are some things about mainstream Satanism I find annoying (e.g., I can do without Peter Gilmore’s near-constant assertion that all theists are categorically insane); but on the whole, I think it’s a pretty reasonable way of looking at the world (“Satanic” or not).
Returning to the $666 Million Question: “Do You Worship the Devil?”
When Pagans are accused of “worshiping the devil,” our typical response is to say “We don’t believe in Satan.” But as I have discussed here, the word devil is just as culturally loaded as the word god. If we define Satan in strictly biblical terms, then no, most of us do not believe in “the devil” at all. But when most people discuss this figure (including Christians), they are referring to one or more non-canonical tropes, not to the original biblical concept. And whenever this is the case, things become much less cut-and-dry. Many of us worship a horned god and consider ourselves to be witches (myself included). Some pray to Venusian deities who can be read as prototypes for Lucifer (again, myself included). And there are even people who actually glorify the Chaos Serpent (myself NOT included, thank you very much). Some Pagans who fit these descriptions actually identify as Satanists too (or as Luciferians). Who are we to tell them they aren’t welcome in our community, so long as they live and let live? If we can accept Christopagans and Jewitches in our subculture but not Satanists, then we are hypocrites.
While more Pagans are fortunate enough to be raised in Pagan families today, the majority of us are converts from other faiths, and most of us were raised either Catholic or Protestant. “I still have a soft spot for the Catholic Church” is a common sentiment I’ve heard from Pagans who were raised Catholic, and this is likely because Catholicism absorbed quite a bit of Paganism into itself over the centuries. Blooming Pagan teenagers in Catholic families are already exposed to countless Pagan ideas, from venerating a goddess (the Virgin Mary) to celebrating the three nights of Samhain (All Hallows’ Eve, All Saints’ Day, and All Souls’ Day). But the entire point to Protestantism is to purify Christianity of all such Pagan influences, consigning them to the devil. So Satan is often the only Pagan thing many Protestant kids are exposed to when they are young. And when a Pagan first blooms in such surroundings, it can be much more difficult to “unlearn” the things they have been conditioned to believe. Going from “hailing Mary” to “hailing Hathor” is one thing, but going from “fearing Satan” to “loving Pan” is quite another.
Discussing the theme of “backmasked” messages in heavy metal music during the Satanic Panic, as explored in the 1986 comedy horror film, Trick or Treat.
One of my all-time favorite movies is a flick that hardly anyone seems to know about. You have to be a real 1980s horror nerd to have seen Charles Martin Smith’s Trick or Treat (1986), and it probably helps if you’re a metalhead too. I’ve never once seen the flick listed on anyone’s “Top 10 Favorite Movies” list, but you will certainly find it on mine, and I’ll tell you why. To the best of my knowledge, this is the first film ever made that features a plot inspired entirely by heavy metal and the hatred it received from politicians, televangelists, and self-righteous soccer moms during the 1980’s Satanic Panic. It may not necessarily be the best film of its subgenre; undoubtedly, many people would probably vote for Jason Lei Howden’s Deathgasm (2015), which has a very similar plot. But despite Deathgasm’s superior production values, Trick or Treat did it first, and it made a huge impression on me while I was growing up.
Eddie Weinbauer (played by Marc Price, better known as “Skippy” from Family Ties) is a teenage metalhead who lives in the town of Lakeridge, North Carolina, and who goes by the nickname “Ragman.” Eddie is especially dedicated to the music of Sammi Curr (Tony Fields), a glam metal shock rocker who’s obviously inspired by Alice Cooper. Eddie absolutely worships Sammi, and he’s friends with a radio DJ named “Nuke” (Gene Simmons of KISS), a nerd named Roger (Glen Morgan, one of the lead writers for The X-Files and the Final Destination movies), and a pretty girl at his school named Leslie (Lisa Orgolini). Unfortunately, Ragman is also bullied at his school by a bunch of jocks (led by Doug Savant of Desperate Housewives fame), who all think he’s creepy and weird. These guys are pretty harsh, too, because they apparently see nothing wrong with trying to drown poor Eddie in a swimming pool.
Why does Ragman dig Sammi Curr so much? Because Curr’s music helps him cope with his feelings of subjugation. In a strange way, Curr is eerily prophetic of Marilyn Manson, who took shock rock to a whole new level in the 1990s. Not content with just scaring or pissing off parents, Manson made himself into a full-blown culture war iconoclast (the “Antichrist Superstar”) and deliberately terrorized the entire American Religious Right. In a similar way, Curr uses his music and his fanbase to declare war on society. He offers his fans a future in which “Rock’s Chosen Warriors will rule the Apocalypse,” and he promises all who try to ban his music that “We will bring you down.” For Eddie, Curr is more than just a rock icon or a hero; he’s a counter-cultural messiah who promises total emancipation from Christian society.
But all of this seems to vanish into thin air when Eddie turns on the TV one morning to learn that Sammi Curr has died in a hotel fire. The boy is instantly crushed and descends into despair, but when he visits his friend Nuke at the local WZLP radio station, Nuke gives him a special gift. You see, Sammi Curr actually grew up right here in Eddie’s hometown, and Nuke was friends with him when they were kids. As it turns out, Nuke just happens to have a demo recording of an album Curr was still recording when he died. (The album is named Songs in the Key of Death.) Nuke gives the record to Eddie, telling him Sammi would have wanted him to have it. And while listening to it later that night, Eddie discovers the album contains a bunch of backmasked messages. Then he plays the record in reverse to see what the messages are saying, and that’s when he receives the biggest shock of his life.
Eddie “Ragman” Weinbauer and his hero, Sammi Curr.
The voice of Sammi Curr speaks to Eddie through the backmasked messages, telling the boy to do certain things while he’s at school the next day. When Eddie follows the advice he is given, he outsmarts his foes and gets them in trouble (while getting away scotch free, himself). It then seems like the two conspirators will get to realize their shared vision of a world without bullies after all; but as Curr continues to help Ragman “nail” his tormenters, he also demands the boy’s help in “nailing” everyone who ever tried to ban his music. Their Halloween pranks soon turn deadly, and Ragman realizes his beloved demigod is actually a demon. By the end, Eddie must stop Sammi from killing everyone in Lakeridge when Nuke plays Songs in the Key of Death backwards on his radio show (on All Hallows’ Eve, no less).
Now I know good and well what some of you must be thinking. Trick or Treat sounds like something that was made by evangelical Christians, right? It sounds like the entire point of the film is to demonize heavy metal and anyone who listens to it. As a devoted metalhead myself, I probably shouldn’t enjoy this film at all, should I? But consider the fact that Ozzy Osbourne appears in a cameo as “the Reverend Aaron Gilstrom,” an anti-rock televangelist. Yes, you read that correctly: Ozzy fuckin’ Osbourne plays a Jimmy Swaggart clone who preaches that metal musicians are all Satanists brainwashing our kids. (Now that’s what I call irony!) I might also point out that Trick or Treat doesn’t quite end the way you’d expect. If this were an evangelical propaganda film like Rock: It’s Your Decision (1982), Eddie would swear off metal for good after defeating Sammi Curr and “give himself to Jesus” (as they say). But after he defeats the ghost of the man who used to be his hero, what do you suppose Ragman actually does?
By gods, he plays a goddamn Sammi Curr record!
Yes, that’s right—and I think this is where Trick or Treat really shines the most. While the film is inspired by urban American myths about “backmasking” in heavy metal music, it obviously does not agree with the people who take such fears literally. Instead, the film presents metal as something that’s legitimately fun but misunderstood—and not only by parents, preachers, or politicians. Eddie Weinbauer eventually sees that Sammi Curr is a much worse bully than any of the jocks who’ve been tormenting him at Lakeridge High. But when Eddie takes Sammi down, he isn’t turning his back on metal (or even on Curr’s music, necessarily). He’s just learning to separate the art he loves from the artist who created it. The artist might be a major asshole, but it’s OK to still enjoy and take inspiration from their art.
When I was in high school, I used to worship the ground Marilyn Manson walked on. But then I learned he really isn’t the all-powerful “Antichrist Superstar” he made himself out to be. At first, this made me feel like I could never listen to Manson’s music again; my sense of disappointment was just too much. But after a while, I learned that art can still be deeply meaningful and magical even if the person who created it is not who (or what) I want them to be. I went through this exact same process with Alice Cooper and Ozzy Osbourne. In heavy metal especially, it’s easy to confuse the people creating the music with the characters they play on stage. Marilyn, Alice, and Ozzy aren’t real people; they’re bigger-than-life personas that were created by Brian Warner, Vincent Furnier, and John Osbourne, respectively. The funny thing is that once I finally began to understand this principle, I started to enjoy their music even more.
Some promotional photos for the film.
In Trick or Treat, the problem is not with heavy metal itself, but with the fact that Sammi Curr takes his hype and his stage persona way too seriously. When Eddie fights him, Sammi accuses him of being “false metal”—but in reality, Sammi is the one who is false. Part of the fun to heavy metal is that it’s basically a huge power fantasy that can be taken to some truly ridiculous extremes. What’s more, this is usually done while keeping one’s tongue planted firmly in-cheek. Sure, there are people like Sammi Curr who take themselves way too seriously; but this genre was built on the backs of guys like Coop and Ozzy, who sing about strangling people or having sex with the devil while winking at their audiences. It’s all make-believe, much like a Halloween party that never ends, and the people who take it too seriously—including both the Pat Robertsons and the Varg Vikerneses of this world—are completely missing the point.
Most people who’ve seen Trick or Treat will tell you it’s a total dud. To be fair, it is full of bloopers; you can even see the boom mike at the top of the screen at one point. (Keep your eyes peeled when Ragman answers the front door, only to find his mom’s boyfriend dressed up as Rambo on the other side. Pay close attention to the top right-hand corner of the screen!) The movie also can’t seem to settle on whether it wants to be a genuine horror film or a comedy with horrific overtones, which is something that normally tends to annoy me. But even with all that being said, Trick or Treat is very well-acted, the music is phenomenal (featuring songs by Fastway and a score by Christopher Young), and a great deal of creative effort was clearly put into it. They weren’t just trying to make a quick buck with this one; they were actually trying to make something witty and intelligent—and for my money, at least, they succeeded.
Trick or Treat is also a film that we hold sacred in the LV-426 Tradition (much like 1979’s Alien and 1982’s The Thing). It nicely reflects our own personal histories with Set. We were all like Eddie Weinbauer when we were kids; we were alienated youth, and we coped with our problems by listening to angry, aggressive-sounding music. That same music became one of our various “doorways” into Setianism, and for this reason, we treated our rock heroes like they were pillars of wisdom and virtue. Big Red had to disabuse us of this notion over time; like Ragman, we had to learn how to enjoy our favorite artists without believing in all their hype, and Trick or Treat reminds us of what it was like to go through all of that.
Alternate poster art for the film.