His Nocturnal Majesty and Our Lady of Thrones both hinge on a central apocalyptic event that occurs sometime in the not-too-distant future, and which I first envisioned when I was in high school back in the 1990s.
The key to understanding this apocalyptic event is Ma’at, the Egyptian concept of truth, justice, and healthy reciprocal relationships between sentient beings and the rest of nature.
When Ma’at is upheld, human civilization, the forces of nature, and even Duat (the Spirit World or Other Side) are all made to flourish. But whenever Ma’at is forsaken, it makes a crack in the very fabric of Creation itself. And there are all kinds of nasty things out there in the nothingness outside Creation—the myriad Powers of Isfet—that would like nothing more than to rip our multiverse apart from within.
Chief among these malevolent forces is an entity so utterly toxic and poisonous, even lesser Powers of Isfet are afraid to speak its true name. For the purposes of my narratives at least, this ancient enemy of all gods and creatures is simply called the Ungod.
Each of the Netjeru or Egyptian gods and goddesses plays various roles in upholding Ma’at and repelling the Ungod at a higher, cosmic level of existence. This prevents the foul thing and its hordes from simply swallowing the entire multiverse whenever they want.
But part of Ma’at requires appreciating the autonomy of all sentient beings, and human mortals are sentient. This means the Netjeru can’t just come down here and uphold Ma’at for us in all of our affairs. We are responsible for upholding Ma’at in our own dealings with each other, our environment, and any other sentient species we might eventually encounter. And so long as there are enough people upholding Ma’at across the world, the Powers of Isfet can never just seep into our area of the multiverse…
The flip side to this, of course, is that when human beings finally become too rotten and despicable in general, all bets are off. The Ungod will slither through the cracks we have made in Ma’at and un-create us (physically, mentally, spiritually, etc.), doing so as slowly and maliciously as it can. The gods will be unable to save us, as well, for we will have chosen this fate for ourselves by our own catastrophic actions. And this is exactly what I saw in my nightmares as a teen. One day, when it seems there’s just no more hope for humanity at all, the Ungod physically appears to everyone as a giant mouth in the sky. Its massive tongues reach down to devour all the people below. And the damned thing is in absolutely no hurry to eat us all at once, either; it prefers to play with its food first, since we taste much better when we are insane with fear.
I’m pretty sure I dreamed all this up from reading the Lament of Hermes, a Greco-Egyptian “prophecy” that foretells of the world falling apart due to a complete absence of Ma’at among humanity. But in my version of events at least, we still have a chance of reversing all this bullshit and exorcising the Ungod. There are still handfuls of good people across the earth who try to uphold Ma’at, even after the monster breaks loose and slithers into our atmosphere. These include the protagonists of both His Nocturnal Majesty and Our Lady of Thrones, who fight to repel the Ungod and restore enough Ma’at so it can’t return.
Our Lady of Thrones is a double album, and the first disc takes place during the final years before the Ungod breaks loose. The second disc takes place after the events of His Nocturnal Majesty, in which the Ungod is repelled by the Shieldmaiden of Set and the Knights in Sutekh’s Service. Once that particular battle is won, the protagonists of Our Lady of Thrones set to work trying to rebuild our world, and they also face off against the Ungod’s surviving mortal allies (who actually want to bring the monster back).
THE SHIELDMAIDEN OF SET
There are actually two Shieldmaidens of Set: a mother and a daughter.
The elder Shieldmaiden was born and grew up long before the Ungod appeared, and she was a police detective. She earned her chops hunting and apprehending some of the most dangerous human predators imaginable. She first encountered Lord Sutekh during a near-death experience, when He warned her of the doom that was to come. After she recovered, she became a survivalist and a martial artist.
When the Ungod appeared, nearly everyone who looked up to the sky went dangerously insane…except for the Shieldmaiden. Somehow, she could look at the Mouth above without losing her nerve. And with this indomitable nerve of steel, she went forth to rescue as many lives as she could during the apocalypse.
One life she saved was that of the second Shieldmaiden, who was just an orphaned baby girl at the time. The woman adopted the child as her own; then they traveled the dying earth, following Lord Sutekh’s instructions. The mother found other people who remained sane at the sight of the Ungod, and she raised a mighty army. The Knights in Sutekh’s Service then launched a counterattack against the Ungod, and the elder Shieldmaiden worked a spell that banished the monster back into the void. She had to attract all of the monster’s attention entirely to herself in the process.
When the Knights saw the gigantic red hand of Sutekh reach into our atmosphere and grab the Ungod in a chokehold, they knew they had won. Then the heroes all dispersed and went to live out their lives in the wilderness (as recounted in His Nocturnal Majesty).
In the years that followed, the elder Shieldmaiden taught the younger everything she knew. The two became known far and wide among the various civilizations that developed after the apocalypse. They were beloved as heroes in most places, but were also feared for being friendly with Lord Sutekh and other Powers people couldn’t understand.
As an adult, the second Shieldmaiden reunited the Knights in Sutekh’s Service to help prevent another visit from the Ungod, which is just part of the story in Our Lady of Thrones.
Like the elder Shieldmaiden of Set, the Sorceress was born and grew up long before the coming of the Ungod. When she was still a young girl, Lady Isis showed her the coming apocalypse in her dreams. These nightmares were terrifying, but the Sorceress took them to heart. Lady Isis told the girl everything she needed to do to plan for and survive the apocalypse as an adult, and the Sorceress followed Her instructions faultlessly.
When she came of age, the Sorceress traveled the world and brought women of different backgrounds together. They became the Church of Many Mothers, and they pooled their resources to buy land and build the town of New Sennebytos somewhere in the West. Not only would this town be dedicated to Lady Isis and the Church’s way of life; it was also equipped with plenty of bunkers and provisions for when the apocalypse began.
In time, the Church of Many Mothers became subject to greater scrutiny and was even perceived as a dangerous terrorist group by the federal government. Members of the Church were hunted down, arrested, even murdered. But the majority survived and hid deep within the bunkers of New Sennebytos when the Ungod appeared. After the monster was banished by the Knights in Sutekh’s Service, the Church returned to the surface and began to rebuild human civilization.
Members of the Church regarded the Sorceress as their prophet and Queen. Some have said she could even raise the dead. Later, she and her Church joined forces with the Knights in Sutekh’s Service to try and prevent the return of the Ungod.
AUTUMN AND RAE
Autumn and Rae were two of the greatest warriors in the Church of Many Mothers. Both thought the Church was just another “doomsday cult” until they saw for themselves how safe, happy, and powerful the women of New Sennebytos really were. After a few years of being members, Autumn and Rae fell in love and were married by the Sorceress.
Shortly before the Ungod appeared in the sky, the monster’s human allies tried to systematically exterminate the Church of Many Mothers. Members were targeted for death in every major city. So the Sorceress appointed a special team of warriors to go and save as many of their sisters in Isis as possible. Rae was chosen to lead the rescue team in Atlanta, and though she managed to save her sisters there, she did not return home herself. Autumn was mad with grief when she and the rest of New Sennebytos were finally forced to retreat underground.
After the Ungod was defeated and the women of New Sennebytos returned to the surface, Autumn trained like hell to become the deadliest warrior in the entire Church. Years later—when the second Shieldmaiden of Set was fully grown—Autumn would lead an excursion back to Atlanta and try to find Rae, assuming she was even still alive…
No one knew the Witchfinder’s true name or origin, but he first appeared long before the World Fell Apart, when the Sorceress was still a young maiden. His existence was really known mostly to the Church of Many Mothers. What little media coverage he received was very closely monitored and censored from the general public.
The Witchfinder was absolutely impervious to any physical injury; he never became ill, and neither blades nor bullets nor blasts could bruise him. He was also a born psychic and could hear thoughts. He knew when other people had paranormal abilities, and he relentlessly stalked and killed as many of these “witches” as he could. He did this because he heard a voice in the sky telling him to do so—the insidious hiss of the Ungod.
The Witchfinder first attacked the Sorceress shortly after she started receiving her prophetic visions from Lady Isis. He relentlessly stalked her entire Church (among others) for decades afterwards. Then the end came, and after the Ungod was repelled, the Witchfinder became the second highest authority in the Kingdom Guard. He would eventually lead the armies of this brutal regime to war against the women of New Sennebytos, and with zero intent of taking any prisoners.
THE REVEREND PRESIDENT
The Reverend President began his career as a televangelist. He heard the hiss of the Ungod, whispering to him from the sky. He mistook it for the voice of “God,” and things always seemed to go his way when he heeded its advice.
He preached that “the Lord” was displeased with society recognizing the freedoms of women, the LGBTQ+ community, minority religions, and atheists and agnostics. He wanted his creeds made into law, requiring Americans to convert and obey upon threat of public execution by the state. The Reverend further taught that if this were not made to happen very very soon—within the next seven years, in fact—”the Lord” would give this world to Satan, and it would be forever destroyed.
As if on cue, the country was besieged by a cult of domestic terrorists who claimed to worship Satan. Even normal rational people started buying into the Reverend’s wild-eyed claims. It wasn’t long before the Reverend was voted into the White House and started issuing executive orders that tyrannized anyone who didn’t worship him and follow his every command. Suspected “witches” were harassed, assaulted, even murdered by their neighbors all across the country, and institutions like the Church of Many Mothers became Public Enemy Number One.
Then the Ungod appeared, and the World Fell Apart.
While the Knights in Sutekh’s Service fought to repel the Ungod back to the void, the Reverend President and the Witchfinder joined forces in Atlanta, which became the capital of their new empire. Known as the Kingdom Guard, this regime invaded and enslaved as many surviving communities across the country as it could. All who were occupied were either converted or exterminated. Those who encountered the Kingdom Guard and escaped with their lives have consistently described its citizens as monsters in the shapes of men.
Our Lady of Thrones culminates in the final confrontation between the Kingdom Guard and the Church of Many Mothers.
The Warlock or “Disciple of the Worm” was known by many names across multiple universes. He wasn’t human, though he had a thousand human faces. Each world he visited soon decayed into nothingness. He used the same method for interdimensional travel as beings like the Fae—by walking between the worlds on different Halloween nights in history (a theme also explored in Summer’s End II)—and he first arrived in this reality in 1982. The Warlock then used (at least) two fake human identities to engineer the end of our world.
In one of his roles, the Disciple was a multimillion dollar media tycoon whose TV programs made him insanely rich. He pretended to be a born-again Christian, and he used his media wizardry to help the Reverend President win the White House.
In his other role, the Warlock was a psychiatrist who worked with the criminally insane. He discreetly hypnotized his patients and helped them all escape. Once free, his patients burned down entire neighborhoods in the name of Satan. The Warlock then encouraged the Reverend President to capitalize on these “satanic terrorists” and seize more and more power over time.
When this evil spell had spread across enough of the globe, the World Fell Apart and the Ungod appeared in the sky. The Warlock was seldom seen afterwards; yet his presence continued to be felt, especially in cities occupied by the Kingdom Guard. His true appearance remained unknown, and it was rumored he could create doubles of himself. Perhaps not even the Reverend President had ever seen the actual Disciple of the Worm face-to-face.
How could anyone know who, when, or where this master of misdirection really was?
Pazuzu is most well-known today thanks to a horror movie about demonic possession; yet He is evoked much more faithfully in a completely different film by the same director.
So far, 2021 has not been much easier than 2020. But if there is one amazing thing for which I will always remember this year moving forward, it’s the fact that I met Pazuzu and He helped me heal myself some when I needed it very badly.
I have known about Pazuzu since I was a teenager, but my understanding of His lore and symbolism was severely inhibited by popular culture at the time. I have no memory of ever reaching out to Him at any point in prayer. I had considered writing a song about Him sometime in 2020; but I eventually forgot about this idea, and I certainly wasn’t planning to write an entire album devoted to Him. When 2021 began, I experienced a near complete mental break and did not think I would ever produce anything again for a while. But then in April, I suddenly felt driven by Pazuzu to write and record 10 songs for Him in less than one week.
And by the time it was over, I felt….something like myself again. Better. Healthier. Not exactly what you’d expect from a figure who is most commonly portrayed as a horror movie villain, is it?
Most people who are familiar with Pazuzu these days are first introduced to Him by William Peter Blatty’s The Exorcist (1973), which was directed by William Friedkin. Blatty is another one of those self-proclaimed “experts” in demonology from the Satanic Panic era, and his novel The Exorcist was inspired by a “real life” exorcism he investigated. The story features Pazuzu as its antagonist, an evil demon that possesses an adolescent girl and drives her to commit all manner of vile obscenities. The film version is one of the most faithful screen adaptations of a novel I have ever seen, and great pains were taken to design a giant Pazuzu statue that is more or less true to ancient Mesopotamian motifs. As a result, it could be said that Pazuzu Himself was actually cast in the film, if only for a few brief cameos.
The Exorcist was a real game changer, and if you need any convincing, just look at how horror movie soundtracks changed after 1973. Prior to The Exorcist, most horror films featured romantic orchestral scores. The themes and melodies might crescendo and increase in tempo at certain points, but they still have harmony, being fairly easy on the ears. William Friedkin originally enlisted the composer Lalo Schifrin to score The Exorcist, but was unsatisfied with everything Schifrin offered and eventually fired him. Friedkin ended up using all pre-recorded music for the film, music that was progressive and experimental for the time.
Most everyone knows the Exorcist “theme song” is actually just a brief clip from Mike Oldfield’s Tubular Bells (1973); but the film also includes selections from Krzyzstof Penderecki’s Polymorphia (1962) and George Crumb’s Black Angels (1970). And while these latter pieces are technically considered “classical,” they belong to that lovely postmodernist category where it’s all orchestral drones and ambience. Shit like this had seldom been used in any films before, and it sounds terrifying as hell, so it didn’t exactly get much radio play either. But it speaks volumes that nearly every horror movie made since 1973 has used much the same sound design template. This is most obviously exemplified by Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining (1980), which includes quite a bit of Penderecki in its soundtrack. But you can also hear this kind of influence in the music of Goblin (e.g., Suspiria, 1977), John Carpenter (Halloween, 1978), Christopher Young (Hellraiser, 1987), and countless others.
(An interesting aside: Ennio Morricone scored Exorcist II: The Heretic in 1977, and Morricone was already known for incorporating some postmodernist influences into his work; consider his scores for Sergio Leone’s Westerns from the 1960’s, for example. Meanwhile, Lalo Schifrin was recruited for The Amityville Horror in 1979, and he repurposed the score he had previously composed for The Exorcist in 1973. There is most definitely a solid Penderecki influence in the finished product, with all those shrill discordant strings.)
The Exorcist is a fantastic film, and it is one of my favorites. Yet there are certain things about it that annoy me. I would enjoy it much better if the story didn’t use a Pagan god for its villain. I understand the movie is really just a giant commercial for the Catholic Church; but there was no need to pick on a random god from another religion to make this point. Still, I probably wouldn’t even know about Pazuzu if I had never seen this film, and the same is likely true of many who walk with Him today. Perhaps in this sense, the ulterior purpose of Blatty’s novel has backfired, providing Pazuzu with an unexpected gateway to our hearts.
Naturally, the success of The Exorcist has led to several sequels and even a recent television series. The absolute worst of these continuations—Exorcist II: The Heretic (1977)—is simultaneously the most fascinating. Directed by the ever-pretentious John Boorman (oh gods please rescue me from ever seeing Zardoz again), The Heretic is really just an excuse for the male gaze to linger on Linda Blair’s blossoming physique, and for Richard Burton to stumble through the script while drunk off his ass. For a more articulate synopsis of this bizarre piece-o-shit movie, I highly recommend my friend ChillerPop’s magnificent review thereof. For our purposes here, the important thing is that Pazuzu is still the villain, but He is not just the “fallen angel” He is claimed to be in the first movie. He is more like a force of nature that can actually be tamed or domesticated by human beings via magic and/or science. The Heretic appears to suggest that the Catholic Church is powerless to stop a force like Pazuzu…and this is a step in the right direction, at least.
Pazuzu is not a fallen angel, but an Assyro-Babylonian god. He is indeed described as the “King of the wind demons” in His original lore; but this means something very different in context. It is really referring to elemental nature spirits, and not to any demons from Christian mythology. Pazuzu is the “King” of these spirits because the rest are all afraid of Him, and they flee if He gets angry. This is exactly why the ancients invoked Him to protect their women and children from other spirits like Lamashtu, which thrive on harming and murdering both. Writers often describe this practice as “using evil against evil” (a line that is even used in the original Exorcist), but I call bullshit. The god of the Bible seems plenty wrathful and violent himself, but people don’t generally think of Christian exorcisms as “using evil against evil.” There really isn’t much difference in principle here, save that Pazuzu is a lesser-known polytheist deity. And as someone who has survived child abuse, I think it really says something that Pazuzu was thought to be so personally invested in the safety of human mothers and babies. That sounds like the complete opposite of “evil,” if you ask me.
None of the Exorcist films do any justice to Pazuzu; but there is another film I have seen that seems to resonate with Him somehow. William Friedkin’s next project after The Exorcist was a movie called Sorcerer from 1977. Despite its supernatural-sounding title, Sorcerer is not a horror film, but more of a bizarre jungle adventure. It’s about these four nefarious men from different countries (one of whom is played by Roy Scheider) who are hiding from mobsters and the law in some unnamed South American country. When a nearby oil rig explodes, killing countless workers, the company owners decide to stop the fire with some nitroglycerin—but the closest batch is damaged, extremely old, and highly volatile. So they enlist the four main characters to haul that nitro through the mountains and rainforests in these really big trucks. What follows is one of the most engrossing and suspenseful quests I’ve ever seen in any film, for just one false move could blow all these poor sweaty bastards straight to hell!
Despite its lack of any supernatural content, there is a powerful mystical edge to Sorcerer. William Friedkin deliberately chose the title as a reference to The Exorcist, stating that the titular “Sorcerer” is actually Fate itself. The trucks that are used for transporting the nitro have demonic-looking “faces,” with their headlights and grills resembling eyes and mouths full of teeth. At numerous points, the protagonists drive past stone figures of ancient gods and monsters from South American folklore. There is one sequence when they must drive across an extremely flimsy bridge, and we can hear the sound of wailing demons in the wind. One of the trucks even has Pazuzu clearly drawn in chalk on its hood—as if He were being asked to watch over these men and their deadly burden!
And then there’s that magnificent electronic music score by Tangerine Dream, which sounds like it belongs in a fucking horror movie. The band composed and produced all of this music without seeing any video footage from the film at all. They delivered even more music than William Friedkin could use, and he was so delighted with their work that he wished he could go back in time and have them score The Exorcist for him. Remember, Friedkin had trouble finding the unique sounds he wanted for that film. Mike Oldfield’s Tubular Bells was an excellent choice for the theme, but can you imagine The Exorcist with music by Tangerine Dream instead? Listen to the Sorcerer soundtrack, and you will have an idea of what such a score would have sounded like. (The very first track, “Main Title,” is especially terrifying to hear in the dark.)
The Sorcerer soundtrack is one of my all-time favorite albums; I first discovered it as a 7th grader in 1995, and I am sure its influence can be found in my latest album, Pazuzu Saves (2021). This was actually unintentional; I wasn’t even thinking about this movie when I first composed the music. But something moved me to re-watch the film a few days after releasing Pazuzu Saves, and I was blown away by all the incidental references to this god (which I had never noticed before). Then I got to thinking about how this movie is all about these roughnecks ascending treacherous mountains to rescue the impoverished South American village they have learned to call home. The story of Pazuzu Saves is partially inspired by tales of the god flying up a mountain to break the wings of all the wind demons that menace humankind. It is difficult for me at this point NOT to watch Sorcerer and draw some kind of parallel to this theme, even though the film is not intended to convey any kind of religious message. Perhaps Pazuzu appreciated being cast in The Exorcist so much, He returned the favor by acting as William Friedkin’s muse for Sorcerer. The latter film certainly feels more in line with what Pazuzu is really all about, at least in my opinion.
Forget what you think you “learned” from The Exorcist (1973) about Pazuzu, and join this mighty deity as He quests against both human and spiritual cruelty.
The last several months of my life have been quite painful, and I imagine I am not alone in this respect. Yet the gods are merciful and good, and one of them in particular saw fit to help me just recently, even though I have never specifically reached out to Him before.
Pazuzu is another ancient god who, like Set, has an extremely bad reputation today, thanks largely to William Peter Blatty and his novel, The Exorcist (i.e., the source material for the 1973 movie). It is interesting that Blatty would choose an explicitly Pagan deity for his novel’s antagonist, rather than one of the fallen angels from his own religious lore.
Far from possessing little girls and making them vomit pea soup or spider-walk up and down staircases, Pazuzu was commonly invoked in ancient times to protect pregnant mothers and newborn children from horrific monsters, most especially the night demon Lamashtu. Sure, He’s creepy and He’s kooky (again, much like Set), and He ain’t much for sunshine and rainbows. But no matter how “evil” people think Pazuzu might be, He clearly hates bullies who harm the defenseless; and though the identity of His mother in Assyro-Babylonian mythology seems unclear, I get a strong feeling that Pazuzu loves His mother very much indeed.
Last week, Pazuzu “possessed” me to record a new album in His honor (ha ha). I could barely sleep or even take any breaks while I put this puppy together. It HAD to be finished last week for some reason; imagine my surprise when I suddenly remembered that Friday was Walpurgis Night!
Anyway, this is my attempt at setting the record straight about Pazuzu, and at providing something good and helpful for His worshipers who live today. Working on this has been an incredibly healing experience; I pray that Pazuzu enjoys it, and that others will too.
Thoughts on Nehebukau, the holy Snake God, and the concept of Snake People, with an analysis of their appropriation by modern pop culture and conspiracy theorists.
It’s important to understand that snakes are not a universal symbol of “evil” in Kemetic or ancient Egyptian lore. Actually they are more like angels, a special class of preternatural being. There are good snakes like Wadjet and Meretseger who serve Atum-Ra the Creator; and there are also bad snakes that serve
Apep and who seek to disintegrate all things. One story of Nehebukau is that He was originally one of the bad snakes; but this was only because of a pinched nerve in His spine that was hurting Him real bad, making Him terribly grouchy. Eventually, Ra healed Nehebukau by touching His back and fixing that nerve, and the latter has been a good and holy snake ever since, working Ma’at and assisting sentient beings through their various kheperu or transformations in life and the afterlife (what might be called a “shedding of skins”). In this way, Nehebukau fits right in with some of the other gods I hold most dear. Like Set and Taweret, He’s kind of like a monster that learned to be better, and who is in a very unique position to empathize with humans in our struggles against isfet.
To be clear: when I refer to “the Snake God,” I am referring to Nehebukau, and not to the monster
Apep. When I refer to “the Chaos Serpent,” the situation is reversed. The distinction here is that Nehebukau is a proper god or Netjer, while Apep is more like an “ungod.” If it confuses anyone that I would use “snake” and “serpent” in different ways like this, just remember the comparison to angels above. Nehebukau is no mere angel (and neither is Apep for that matter), but one might say Nehebukau is a Snake God in the same way that Gabriel is a “holy angel,” while Apep is a Chaos Serpent in the same way that Satan is a “fallen angel.” There are additional good male snake gods among the Netjeru as well (e.g., Geb, Mehen, etc.); but as I have not personally interacted with any of them myself, Nehebukau is the particular Netjer I mean to invoke when I write “Snake God” in capital letters.
Prior to collaborating with Setken on Hymn To The Soul Serpent (Hymn To Nehebukau), I don’t recall actually being that cognizant of Nehebukau before. I recall seeing Him in Egyptian art in His winged, double-headed serpent form from time to time; but it wasn’t until my exposure to Setken’s artistry that I remember seeing the Snake God depicted in a humanoid form (as exemplified in Setken’s Study For The Netjeru!: Nehebukau). Apart from just being really fucking beautiful, Setken’s paintings spoke to something buried deep within the furthest regions of my memory. It was not until we were almost ready to release Hymn to the Soul Serpent that I suddenly realized just what these sacred icons were actually reminding me of.
(When Setken first proposed the Hymn to the Soul Serpent project to me, I mistook him for saying “Nekhebet,” and I immediately started studying footage of vultures for inspiration. When I realized my mistake, I apologized to to Nehebukau profusely, even though I am reasonably certain He wasn’t actually offended. But perhaps some kind of project for Nekhebet might be on the horizon!)
This is probably going to get me into trouble (more on this later), but I’ve had a fascination with the idea of reptile people for as long as I can remember. I think my first exposure to this was from watching He-Man and the Masters of the Universe. I also collected the dolls (or “action figures,” if it really bothers other men so much), and my absolute favorites were the Snake Men. King Hiss looked like a normal dude, but his entire torso came apart to reveal his true form as a writhing mass of vipers. Tung Lashor had a super-long poison tongue that came rocketing out of his mouth when you operated the button on his back. And Rattlor’s neck could extend with quite some force, rendering him somewhat hazardous around children’s eyeballs. These characters were not featured in the He-Man cartoons, but the dolls came with miniature comic books that explained their background stories and such.
According to the comic that came with King Hiss, the Snake Men are native to He-Man’s homeworld, Eternia, and they controlled a powerful empire long before the reign of King Randor. They were banished to some alternate dimension, but the evil wizard Skeletor found a way to bring them back. Thanks to He-Man, Skeletor only succeeded in facilitating the return of three Snake Men: King Hiss, Tung Lashor, and Rattlor. The Snake Men then launched a campaign to return the rest of their kind to Eternia, so they could invade and enslave humanity once more.
Is any of this starting to sound familiar to you yet? In Episode #10 of this series, I discuss one of my least favorite anti-Setian tropes in popular culture: the theme of an “evil snake god” called “Set” who was banished to an alternate dimension, who has legions of “Serpent Men” under his command, and who seeks to return and invade the world of human beings. This theme originates from the short fantasy fiction of Robert E. Howard (creator of Conan the Cimmerian and Kull the Conqueror), and it gained even more traction when Marvel Comics was licensed to adapt Howard’s fiction into its own fictional universe in the 1970s. Since then, the “Set and His evil Serpent Men” trope has emerged in countless cartoons, movies, role-playing games, and science fiction TV shows. He-Man and the Masters of the Universe, with its Snake Men and their tyrannical King Hiss, just happens to be the most obvious example of this trend.
One thing I disliked about He-Man was the fact that these Snake Men were bad guys. I have always loved snakes, especially the non-lethal ones like garter snakes, and I always thought it would be neat if these characters could have been heroes instead. I remember imagining my own Saturday morning cartoon shows where the heroes were all benevolent Snake People (with badass edgy names like Queen Hissteria and Big Bad Mamba), and the bad guys were just normal-looking humans. Curiously, the animated He-Man series does feature another race of snake people, the Reptons, who are peaceful and kind. (One of them, Kobra Khan, is one of Skeletor’s goons; but the show makes it clear that Khan is just a bad egg, and the rest of the Reptons are cool.) But when it comes to stories that add a little more dimension to this concept than what I usually expect, my life changed forever when I saw Doctor Who.
No, I’m not talking about the newer Who series that’s been in production since 2005. I speak to you of those lost long days when the only way you could catch Doctor Who here in the States was by watching PBS and sitting through all those passive aggressive pledge drives they used to do, where they’d threaten us with no Doctor Who ever again if we didn’t call in to buy that nifty coffee mug with the disappearing TARDIS. During the Jon Pertwee years, there were two serials that dealt with the theme of reptile people specifically: The Silurians and The Sea Devils, written by Malcolm Hulke. In the first of these adventures, the Doctor (who is currently stuck on earth with an inoperative TARDIS) learns there was another intelligent species that ruled this planet long before humans evolved from apes. These reptile people are not aliens, but native to earth. They went into hibernation deep underground when their advanced astronomy detected the incoming comet that eventually wiped out the dinosaurs. Their machines were supposed to awaken them shortly after the disaster, but a malfunction caused them to remain in suspended animation until they were accidentally revived by human nuclear testing during the 1970s.
Having resurfaced, the reptile people are understandably distressed to find their planet invaded by ultraviolent hairless apes. Some of them are willing to try and co-exist with us peacefully, and the Doctor tries his best to facilitate an arrangement to this effect. But racists on both the human and reptilian sides of this dispute eventually stifle this hope, with the reptiles unleashing their biological warfare upon us, and the humans bombing all the rest of their hibernation chambers. In the second of these serials, the Doctor encounters another tribe of reptile people who belong to an aquatic subspecies, and the whole thing starts all over again. (Things are made even worse this time by the Master, played by Roger Delgado, who actively seeks to escalate the conflict between humans and reptilians.) Doctor Who lore is curiously divided as to how the reptilian characters in these stories are to be identified, but when I was a kid at least, I always went by the Malcolm Hulke novelizations, which refer to the land-dwelling reptilians as Silurians and their oceanic cousins as Sea Devils.
I remember CRYING a lot whenever I watched these episodes of Doctor Who, to the point that my parents were concerned I was actually scared and would have nightmares. But while I did find this stuff disturbing, it wasn’t because it was scary; it was because it was sad. I thought the Silurians and the Sea Devils were cool, and I wanted things to work out so that everybody can share this planet together and get along. I will admit that I was very young at the time, and I didn’t yet grasp that this was all just make-believe. But I also remember that when I got a little older and I first learned about some of the colonialist atrocities that have been (and still are) perpetuated against Native Americans, my initial reaction was to reflect back on Malcolm Hulke’s stories and the profound emotional reactions they invoked in me. The difference, though, is that THIS WAS FUCKING REAL, it ACTUALLY HAPPENED, it is most certainly NOT make-believe. And learning THAT horrible truth (in addition to others) has kept me awake at night far more than any scary TV show ever could. (Somehow, I sense that if I could ask Malcolm Hulke about this today, he would tell me this was exactly his point in writing these awesome stories.)
Incidentally, the Silurians and Sea Devils return in a few later Doctor Who adventures, but Malcolm Hulke had nothing to do with these serials, and I am not really a fan. In the 1983 episode Warriors of the Deep, the Fifth Doctor (Peter Davison) ends up wiping out two combined tribes of terrestrial and aquatic reptilians all at once. Sure, Davison makes a fantastic Doctor, and he clearly doesn’t WANT to commit genocide against the reptilians; but he does it anyway, and it’s gross, and there is no text or subtext about colonialism anywhere to be seen. It’s just “We gotta kill the people with animal heads so the humans can live.” This leaves the whole story feeling way too hollow and mean-spirited for my tastes.
Decades later, the new Doctor Who series re-introduced the Silurians during the Matt Smith era. These episodes deal with Malcolm Hulke’s creations much more respectfully, and I really enjoy the idea of a badass lady Silurian living in Victorian England and kicking hiney to help the Doctor save the world and stuff. I believe they even wrote it that at some point in Earth’s future history, humans and reptilians really do learn to co-exist. This is definitely a major victory as far as my inner child is concerned; but I just can’t stand the new makeup design for the Silurians. Old Silurians (and Sea Devils) actually look like people with reptile heads, much like the Serpent Men from Conan and the Snake Men from Masters of the Universe. The new versions are really just people with reptile skin, and they don’t resemble the beloved creatures from my childhood enough to resonate. Still, I do enjoy the fact that Doctor Who‘s reptile people have at least been vindicated in terms of their collective story arc after all these years.
Another show in which Robert E. Howard’s Serpent Men resurface is Hasbro’s G.I. Joe: A Real American Hero. In the 1987 animated film adaptation of the popular cartoon series, it is revealed that the international terrorist organization Cobra is really just a front for an ancient civilization called Cobra-La, which of course was populated by Snake People. These reptilians naturally seek to reclaim what they perceive to be their stolen earth, and the entire history of Cobra as a human totalitarian human regime is really just one more phase in their long game.
I don’t remember owning any G.I. Joe dolls, but I remember really enjoying the cartoon and its huge ensemble of diverse and fairly well-developed characters (especially my first true love, the Baroness Anastasia Cisarovna). But imagine my surprise when I learned that Cobra wasn’t actually created by Hasbro, which launched the toyline. Rather, it was “invented” by Marvel Comics, which was commissioned to write a story for Hasbro when it re-launched its catalogue in the 1980s. The writers at Marvel pointed out that the heroes needed some villains to fight if there were going to be any story worth telling; and for lack of any better alternative, they more or less cloned the concept of Hydra—the terrorist organization battled by superhero teams like the Avengers—and re-named it “Cobra.”
Like Cobra, Hydra was originally founded by ancient reptilians, who later infiltrated human governments for their own purposes, including that of Nazi Germany. Then there’s the fact that many of Hydra’s most infamous members are named after snakes in one way or another, including Viper/Madame Hydra, Gorgon, Anaconda, etc. But there’s an extra layer here: the Serpent Men who founded Hydra turn out to be the very same Serpent Men who serve the “evil snake god” Set in Howard’s Kull and Conan tales. This bastardization of Set has even appeared throughout Marvel Comics as an actual character for superheroes like the Avengers to fight. This is ironic given that the real Egyptian god Set also makes a personal appearance in an episode of G.I. Joe; but as discussed in Episode #10, G.I. Joe was much much closer to the mark! Its version of Set doesn’t appear to be involved with the civilization of Cobra-La, either.
Now I must return to my earlier point about how writing about all of this will probably get me into some trouble with some people. (It’s okay, I don’t really care—this is all for Nehebukau, to whom I shall return in just a moment!) I am sure readers in the know are already chomping at the bit for me to touch on reptilian humanoid conspiracy theories and the bizarre subcultures they have bred in real life. I’m referring of course to the belief some people have that there are actual reptilians living among us here on earth. These people mostly take their cue from the exact same source: David Icke, a pseudoscientist and total huckster. Since the late 1990’s, Icke has popularized this belief that reptilians from a planet orbiting Alpha Draconis invaded our planet way back in ancient times. They were mistakenly worshiped as “gods” by “wayward” people like the ancient Egyptians, and they continue to infiltrate modern human governments (including the entire Bush family, no less). Furthermore, this ancient alien reptile conspiracy is supposed to kidnap little children and drain them of their spinal fluid so it can be fed to Hillary Clinton, who is herself alleged to be a reptilian warlord in disguise. (Icke even manages to tie his evil reptilians together with Nazi Germany somehow, which explains the trope of Adolf Hitler secretly floating around the Arctic in submarines with reptile people.)
There are so many things wrong with David Icke’s bullshit, it’s impossible for me to address each particular grievance in today’s sermon. But my most immediate critiques are that Icke’s take on ancient civilizations is hopelessly racist; his encouragement of secularized Satanic Panic nonsense is absolutely deporable; and worst of all, domestic terrorists have adopted his anti-reptilian routine, trying to assassinate politicians they believe are reptilians. Yet there is something else wrong with all of this that should hopefully be CRYSTAL fucking clear by this point, given everything I have already explained above:
It’s ALL fiction, and NONE of it is original.
Robert E. Howard made a lot of this crap up back in the 1920s. Then Marvel Comics came along and made up some more in the 1970s. Then a bunch of Saturday morning cartoons boosted the signal for it during the 1980s. And of course there have been countless other science fiction authors and media properties that have played around with the concept in one way or another. David Icke never wrote any of his conspiracy theory bullshit until the late 1990s, by which point the meme had already been well established in popular culture. So it’s pretty fucking clear that he plagiarized his entire routine from a bunch of cartoons and comic books. And the assholes who are willing to kill people over this shit are really doing it for nothing.
Here’s the thing: I do not actively believe there are any reptilian humanoids living on this earth, or at least not in the sense of “ancient aliens” (more on this below). I’m not saying it isn’t possible; I just haven’t found any evidence to substantiate such an idea. But even if I did, I would quicker assume such entities are just as native to this world as we are, and that they have just as much right to be here as we do. I don’t believe any of this nonsense about aliens controlling human governments; human beings are the single most dangerous creatures on this planet, we don’t need extraterrestrials to make us any better at wreaking havoc. If there ARE any Snake People around, they’re probably HIDING from us because they’re fucking SCARED TO DEATH of us!
And to assume that an entire sentient race would be inherently evil simply because it evolved from reptiles is, to call a spade a spade, racist. WE evolved from motherfucking APES, and apes do some pretty fucked-up shit you know. Maybe it’s just because I grew up learning important lessons about these things from Captain Jean-Luc Picard; but I see no reason to assume a civilized reptilian people would be any worse at respecting Ma’at or fighting isfet than civilized simian peoples apparently are. (I can already read the emails from Icke’s zombie followers, skewering me for being some dumb, deluded PR boy for the Visitors who want to eat me and my family!)
The thing is, there are other people who believe in real reptilians so to speak, and who hold more sensible views about them than anything offered by David Icke. The most prevalent example of this would be Hindu, Buddhist, and other Asian religious belief systems that acknowledge the Nagas. These semi-divine creatures can appear as snakes, people, or any variety of human/serpentine hybrid. They are believed to have pre-existed humans, and while they can be good or evil just like us, most of them appear to be dutiful servants of the Devas (the Hindu gods). They enjoy living in rivers, lakes, oceans and raindrops, and they guard all kinds of ancient knowledge and treasures. Though they are not necessarily gods, the Nagas are often venerated with offerings, which helps to attract good fortune. Much of this is echoed in Chinese folk beliefs about dragons, as well. Lóng or Chinese dragons are also shapeshifters who can appear human and who bring good luck to those who show them the proper gratitude and respect.
I first learned about the Nagas not from a textbook or a cartoon show, but from my best friend in second grade, a boy named Pawan. Pawan and his family were Indian American immigrants and deeply observant Hindus. I remember seeing various images of the Devas whenever I visited their apartment. I do not recall which sect or tradition Pawan and his family might have followed (and being only eight years old or so, I lacked the head space to even formulate such a question at the time). But I remember asking Pawan’s mother to tell me about the Nagas, and she seemed really happy to share some stories with me. It must have been crazy to have this weird little white boy from next door take such a genuine interest in her family’s culture and heritage!
But then I would go home and tell my parents about this stuff. For some reason, they were only okay with such beliefs as long as it was Pawan and his family practicing them. I received every indication that it is only acceptable for white people to be Christians and believe in one god, even though neither of my parents has ever been a committed religious believer of any kind. Much later I would meet some of David Icke’s followers (most of whom are white), who insisted to me that both Naga and Lóng veneration is really just another part of the evil reptilian plot to murder children and keep the world hypnotized. When these people claim that Asians are actually venerating evil demons or aliens—or if they suggest that such religious traditions are “beneath” white people for any reason—they are blatantly endorsing Christian white supremacism; full stop.
Furthermore, neither the Nagas nor the Lóng are space aliens that ride around in spaceships. There are no tales about them eating people or operating any nefarious shadow governments. They are nature spirits and religious figures, not science fiction monsters. The same is true of other Snake People who are acknowledged in other cultures too, including African Mami Wata spirits and Native American horned serpents. This begs the question: could the ancient Egyptians have believed in something similar? There doesn’t appear to be any specific term in Egyptian for “serpent man” or “snake person” (or at least not that I have found just yet); but perhaps this would have been redundant. The Egyptians appear to have regarded normal, everyday snakes as sentient creatures with magical powers. How else could serpents be held accountable to Ma’at, with the good snakes serving Ra and the evil snakes following
Apep? This distinction makes little sense, at least to me, unless we stop to consider that maybe snakes are actually people too!
Which helps me circle back to the Netjeru. It is curious that I never felt drawn to any particular Egyptian snake deities until Setken first proposed that we collaborate on his Hymn to the Soul Serpent project together. Only then did it occur to me that everything I ever needed to justify my enthusiasm for snakes (whether as animals, sentient beings, or magical anthropoids) is already included in the belief system I already follow. And when I laid eyes on Setken’s humanoid portrayals of Nehebukau, I was taken back to those far-off days when I would play with my Snake Men dolls; when I would weep over the Silurians and the Sea Devils; when I secretly rooted for Cobra or Hydra as reptilian freedom fighters; and when I listened to Pawan’s mother explain to me about the Nagas. Could it be that Nehebukau was looking in on me even back then, thinking, “This is the kid I want to co-write a song for Me someday”? Could it have been His double-headed wisdom that helped me see through all of David Icke’s bullshit when it was first presented to me? Hell; I reckon Set and Nehebukau probably both had all of this arranged somehow before I was even born!
Writing one song isn’t all I think I am meant to do, either. I think Nehebukau has probably put all of this stuff into my brain for some kind of purpose, and I mean to put it to use somehow. This very likely means another album will soon be in the works. I always wanted to make movies when I grew up; and failing that, I enjoy adapting some of my old story pitches from childhood into “soundtracks” for films that don’t exist (as with Summer’s End and His Nocturnal Majesty, with which I am very happy). I’ve successfully introduced the crimefighting mummy Het-Sem-Peckinpah to the world, as well as the mysterious Knights In Sutekh’s Service. Now that my Halloween and apocalypse “movies” have been taken care of, so to speak, perhaps it is time to revisit my old sword-and-sorcery “movie” pitch as well. It could be that Queen Hissteria, Big Bad Mamba, and other Saurian Warriors of Basilisk Basilica will soon be making an appearance…
The sister and ex-wife of Set is a renowned healer of wounded hearts and minds.
Even more than Ishtar or Taweret, Nephthys is the goddess who is most often linked with Set. In fact, some people might be wondering why it’s taken me 40 whole episodes before I got around to discussing Her. Truth is, I wanted to highlight the aforementioned goddesses first because Their interactions with Set are far less known. I also think Set and Nephthys share a much more complex relationship than what is typically imagined about god and goddess couples, for reasons I shall explain.
The name of this goddess, which comes from the Egyptian Nebet-Het, means “Lady of the House.” It refers to a temple enclosure, rather than a domestic residence. In the Heliopolitan cosmogony, Nephthys is one of the fourth generation of Netjeru (the others being Osiris, Isis, Set, and even Horus in some accounts). As such, She is one of the divinities who facilitate life here on earth, and who contributes to the arts of human civilization.
The fourth generation of gods was somewhat disruptive to the natural order of things at first. There is even a story about Ra, the first Netjer, prohibiting their granddaughter, the sky goddess Nut, from giving birth to these young’uns (despite already being pregnant). Thankfully, the wise god Thoth finds a technicality that allows Nut to have her children while still technically obeying Ra’s decree. So first it was just Ra, and all things were united in them. Then Ra begat Shu and Tefnut, the breath and the waters of life, who are the first male and female. After that, Shu and Tefnut begat another male and female, Nut and Geb, the deities of heaven and earth. While Ra themself is hermaphroditic, the second and third theological generations are dichotomous, falling into a strict gender binary that is strongly tied to the reproductive cycle.
Reproduction becomes a major theme for the fourth generation of Netjeru as well, but in a radically different way. For one thing, there are not just two deities in this generation, but at least four (if not five, depending on whether you choose to include Horus—but more on that in a moment). Only two of these figures—Isis and Osiris—are a fertile heteronormative couple, and they become the darlings of the pantheon for this reason. Set and Nephthys are sterile and barren, incapable of producing any offspring. Set is also attracted to gods of the same sex, and there is reason to think the same might be true of Nephthys. While Isis and Osiris are like celebrities, receiving all the glory and the privilege from their elders, everybody tries to forget about Set and Nephthys in the beginning, pairing Them together and leaving Them to fend for Themselves.
The way I see it, this is what sets the entire Osirian drama into motion. More than anything, Nephthys—sometimes described as “an imitation woman with no vagina”—wants to have a child; She wants to experience all the same parts of womanhood that Isis enjoys. So She disguises Herself as Isis and sleeps with Osiris, who is so miraculously fertile, he could even impregnate a corpse. Nephthys then gives birth to Anubis, the jackal god, and tries to hide Him so Set won’t find out what happened. But Set learns the truth and loses His temper big time. Instead of trying to harm Nephthys or Anubis, however, He squashes Osiris instead (twice, in fact). Then Isis goes on her journey to raise Osiris from the dead. She succeeds, sleeps with her brother-husband one last time before he goes to Duat, and becomes pregnant with Horus. (This is where the question of when Horus is born comes up again. I prefer to place it here at this point in the narrative, as it makes the most thematic sense to me personally; but there are other versions of the same narrative that cite Nut as the mother of Horus. Just one more example of how the ancient Egyptians were way ahead of quantum physicists or science fiction writers when it comes to the idea of alternate universes.) Nephthys dutifully accompanies Isis through all of this insanity, helping Her sister every step of the way.
This is especially the case when it comes to the funeral of Osiris; and here is where Nephthys’ innermost drive becomes most evident. She and Her son Anubis help Isis reconstruct the body of Osiris and restore him to life. Through much of this process, Nephthys weeps and wails and whimpers with Isis, empathizing with the widowed goddess and sharing in her profound sorrow. The Egyptians prayed to Nephthys as a kind of “dark midwife” you might say, a divine grief counselor who assists those in terrible emotional anguish, helping them heal and feel better over time. This fits together with the role of Anubis, who invents the funerary arts and becomes the first mortician. Nobody enjoys experiencing death or loss, but they are facts of life, and those of us who survive must find a way to live again. To think that Nephthys and Anubis have always been there to nurture things that help us cope with such experiences (such as counseling or mortuary science) makes my heart glow like a jack-o’lantern.
Nephthys sides with the Osirian Trinity during the Contendings of Horus and Set, and She sticks with them for the most part after the Great Reconciliation. She continues associating with Big Red when it comes to fighting the Chaos Serpent, and She appears to have been revered as a powerful fire-breathing warrior in this regard. But the one member of the Divine Family Nephthys truly seems to have fallen in love with is Isis. To make things even more interesting, other cosmogonies have cited Set as being Anubis’ father; the two are often linked (or even outright confused with each other) even today.
None of what I say next should be treated as any kind of official religious dogma. This is just what I personally take from these wonderful stories, and you can either take it or leave it. But I think Nephthys is a lesbian goddess. I think She and Set still love each other; They have just always loved each other as brother and sister for the most part. They are divorced, but for good reason; They were never very attracted to each other in the first place. Isis and Osiris are married because they love each other; Set and Nephthys were paired together as an afterthought to make the rest of the pantheon happy. This refusal to properly integrate the forms of life and being that Set and Nephthys represent is what almost caused the downfall of Creation, and the apocalypse was only averted when the Netjeru got wise as a society and changed their ways. Now these two outcasts are truly accepted by Their family as equals, and Set has even grown to love Anubis and become His stepdad.
This trinity of Set, Nephthys, and Anubis is truly remarkable for many reasons. A divorced pansexual genderbending dad, a barren lesbian spinster mom, and a so-called “illegitimate” stepchild born of “adultery”? What isn’t there to love about this, or the fact that these figures were considered acceptable and divine in ancient Egyptian culture? The Western patriarchal concept of “the nuclear family”—which insists that all families must consist of two heteronormative cisgender adults with 2.3 biological offspring born in wedlock—is not only a more recent invention in the grand scheme of things, but a blatant work of isfet (poisonous falsehood and injustice) that contradicts Ma’at (everlasting goodness and truth). There is a place for EVERY sentient being in this world, AND for the sentient beings they love too. It simply DOES NOT MATTER whether we are male or female, gay or straight, trans or cisgender, married or unmarried, monogamous or non-monogamous, biologically related or adopted—and it NEVER has. Other religions need to hurry the fuck up and get wise to this, already. Set, Nephthys, and Anubis were already on top of this well ahead of Yahweh and Jesus, and things still don’t look so good for those two on this score today.
(Plus, Set, Nephthys, and Anubis are all goth as hell, like They’re the original Addams Family—and that is just cool.)
If there is any one divinity I associate with Hallowtide in particular (which is no easy task, given the sheer quantity of gods who align with the occasion perfectly), Nephthys is the one. My wife and I enjoy visiting cemeteries all around our state in October and November, and to me, this is a way of honoring Nephthys throughout the holiday season. Just to walk among the graves and admire the craftsmanship of the headstones and tombs; to see all the ancient iconography that still shows up, even among the newer statuary; to soak in the names of the ancestors who rest there, and the times in which they lived; to be alone in the eerie silence. Even if you don’t believe in ghosts, there is just something about visiting such places for a couple of hours that has an effect on you. Most people seem to find the idea spooky, but I find it very peaceful and meditative, helping me achieve a level of mindfulness I usually can’t reach otherwise. To me, this kind of mindfulnessness is a huge part of what Lady Nephthys is all about.
Lest She be accused of never being colorful, Nephthys is also the guardian of the Bennu. This avian divinity was associated with heron birds and the solar cycle in Heliopolis. The Greek writer Herodotus described it as the phoenix (a possible Greek derivative of Bennu), which later developed into the archetypal “bird of fire” that ritually burns and rises from its own ashes. These more modern associations are fascinating when put together with Nephthys’ reputation as a healer of wounded minds and hearts, as well as Her role as a fiery monster-slayer. Though it is really about Russian folklore, I enjoy listening to Igor Stravinsky’s The Firebird each year at Hallowtide because I find the titular creature analogous to that of the Bennu, and phoenix symbolism is very evocative of Nephthys to me personally.
The Yezidis are accused of “worshiping the devil,” but are also romanticized by Western occultists—neither of which is acceptable.
I first learned about the Yezidis from reading Terri Hardin’s Supernatural Tales From Around the World in the late 1990s. At that point, most people—including Western scholars—were still calling them “devil worshipers,” and accurate information about this culture was still very hard to come by. It’s only been during the past 15 years or so that the outside world has finally given the Yezidis the proper attention they deserve, but the cause for this is unfortunate. After many centuries of persecution, the Yezidis continue to be systematically slaughtered by Islamic jihadists. They are especially despised by the Islamic State terrorist group, which has exterminated entire crowds of Yezidi men and kidnapped countless Yezidi women and children, forcing them into slavery.
Yezidism is a syncretized religion that combines pre-Zoroastrian Kurdish polytheism with certain elements from the biblical faiths. It revolves around nine theological personas, including: a deistic Creator god who takes little direct interest in mortal affairs; seven archangels that serve as custodians for Creation; and a holy prophet named Sheikh Adi ibn Musafir, who is believed to have been one of the seven archangels in human form. Yezidis believe that worshiping the Creator god is pointless, because this entity does not actually care what happens to mortal beings. Our prayers are more productively directed toward the archangels instead, since they now rule the universe in the Creator’s place. Of these seven angels, the most important is called Melek Taus or Ta’usi-Melek, “the Peacock Angel.”
Melek Taus appears to have been a polytheist deity who was later conflated with the Islamic version of Satan, and this is where the accusation of Yezidi “devil worship” comes from. According to the Koran, Iblis (“Doubt,” the Islamic name for Satan) was originally a genie who refused to prostate himself before Adam per Allah’s command. Iblis is said to have thought he was superior to human beings, and Allah cast him out of heaven for his insolence and pride. Afterwards, Iblis became the Shaitan and devoted himself to tricking as many people into disobeying Allah as possible (so they will go to hell). Aside from this origin story, the Islamic devil functions in much the same way as the Christian devil does; he is basically there to harass, frighten, and/or deceive monotheists into committing various “sins.”
The Yezidis worshiped their peacock god long before they ever heard this story; but at some point, attempts were made to convert them to Islam. They were told that their Peacock Angel is actually the Shaitan (just as all polytheist deities are really “Satan” in monotheist eyes). Strangely, the Yezidis seem to have agreed that Melek Taus is the same person as Iblis; and they do agree that he disobeyed a direct order from the Creator by refusing to worship human beings. But this is where the resemblance between these two narratives ends. The Yezidis believe that instead of becoming the devil, Melek Taus actually became the first monotheist. He disobeyed the Creator not out of pride but out of loyalty, for he was refusing to worship anyone else but the Creator. The Yezidis further hold that Melek Taus was rewarded for this act of disobedience, and that the Creator chose him to rule our cosmos. In this way, they justified the continued worship of their Peacock Angel not as the “enemy” of Allah, but as his regent.
Sheikh Adi ibn Musafir was a medieval Sufi Muslim who traveled to Kurdistan in search of some peace and quiet. Despite his attempts to live a monastic life, he drew the attention of his new Yezidi neighbors, who seem to have thought he was a wizard. Sheikh Adi likely tried converting the Yezidis to Islam (and he was probably one of the very few who ever tried to do this peacefully). As far as I’ve been able to trace, the idea of Iblis being “the first monotheist” originates from the Sufi movement, which follows a more mystical reading of Islam. I bet Sheikh Adi introduced this idea to the Yezidis, who then equated it with their own god Melek Taus. In any case, Sheikh Adi made such an impression on these people that they started to believe he was actually a human incarnation of the Peacock Angel. To this very day, making a pilgrimage to Sheikh Adi’s tomb is still an important component of the Yezidi faith.
Much of the attention Yezidism has received here in the West comes from Satanists, who often cite the religion as “proof” for the historicity of a pre-LaVeyan Satanism. (Nevermind the fact that Anton LaVey was preceded by two earlier 20th century Satanists, Maria de Naglowska and Herbert Sloane.) LaVey even included part of a so-called Yezidi text—the Al-Jilwah—in his book, The Satanic Rituals (Avon, 1972). This text is now accepted by some theistic Satanists as a direct revelation from Lucifer himself; but its true history is far less certain. For one thing, the Al-Jilwah is only part of a longer text called the Mishaf Resh (“Black Book”). And while it does reflect some Yezidi beliefs, it was not written by Yezidis. Back in 2007, I had an opportunity to speak about this with Dr. Philip G. Kreyenbroek (one of the leading scholars of Yezidi culture today), and this is what Dr. Kreyenbroek shared with me:
“The so-called ‘Sacred Books’ are forgeries and have little to do with Yezidi belief. [. . .] I can still remember the face of a learned Yezidi friend of mine when I first showed him the ‘Sacred Books,’ first he was scandalized and then he laughed fit to burst.”—P.G. Kreyenbroek (Personal Communication, October 20, 2007)
I have met theistic Satanists who believe everything in the Al-Jilwah word-for-word, as if it were the Bible and they were fundamentalist Christians. Yet the truth is that:
- Melek Taus and Satan are two completely different figures.
- Yezidis don’t believe in “Satan” as he is defined in Christianity or Islam at all.
- Yezidis consider the Al-Jilwah to be some Westerner’s idea of a joke.
This pretty much destroys the entire notion of using the Al-Jilwah as some kind of “infallible” sacred scripture. But Yezidi beliefs have also been appropriated by other Western occult groups, including Theosophists and Thelemites . While romanticizing the Yezidis as “ascended occult masters” is much better than vilifying them as “devil worshipers,” it is equally removed from reality. What these people have written about Yezidism really says more about Western occultists than it does about Yezidis. It’s equivalent to saying, “I can’t find more than a single paragraph about the Yezidis in any of my encyclopedias, and I’ve never actually met a Yezidi person or directly experienced their faith in any way; but since I’m a Snooticus Maximus XXI° of the Ordo Assholius Genericus, I automatically know more about Yezidism than anyone else—including those silly Yezidis!”
A much better example of how Western occultists can treat Yezidi beliefs and culture would be the Feri Tradition of Traditional Witchcraft. For better information on this particular subject, check out The Blue God of Faery, an interview with Storm Faerywolf on Patheos.com.
Alexander Hislop once conflated Melek Taus with Set, but my research has convinced me that this claim is false. However, I continue to feel great empathy for the Yezidis. I appreciate their unique theology, and I can identify with how frustrating it is when people think your god is “evil.” My heart also breaks whenever I think of all the human rights abuses the Yezidis have suffered en masse. This has been my attempt at setting the record straight about some of their beliefs, which are grossly misrepresented not only by Christians and Muslims, but also by Satanists and other Western occultists. There is nothing wrong with taking some inspiration from the Yezidi faith, if people feel a calling to do so; after all, the Yezidis themselves maintain that Melek Taus “belongs to everyone.” But if a person does take inspiration from the Yezidis, they should make every effort to understand Yezidism on its own terms, as well as to clarify that they are not actual Yezidis themselves. Since the Yezidis are an ethnic group as much as they are a religion, white people have no business trying to include themselves in their culture.
Acikyildiz, B. (2010). The Yezidis: The history of a community, culture and religion. New York, NY: I.B. Tauris & Co.
Allison, C. (2001). The Yezidi oral tradition in Iraqi Kurdistan. Richmond, Surrey: Curzon Press.
Arakelova, V. (2004). Notes on the Yezidi religious syncretism. Iran & the Caucasus, 8(1), 19–28. Stable URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/4030889
Asatrian, G. (1999). The holy brotherhood: The Yezidi religious institution of the”brother” and the “sister” of the next world. Iran & the Caucasus, 3/4. Stable URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/4030767
Asatrian, G., & Arakelova, V. (2004). The Yezidi pantheon. Iran & the Caucasus, 8(2), 231–279. Stable URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/4030995
Guest, J.S. (1987). Survival among the Kurds: A history of the Yezidis. Abingdon, Oxon: Routledge.
Kreyenbroek, P.G. (2009). Yezidism in Europe: Different generations speak about their religion. Göttingen, Germany: Hubert & Co.
She rebelled to help humanity before Prometheus. She died and rose from the grave before Jesus. And She invented the “zombie apocalypse” before George Romero.
Almost every culture has viewed Venus—the “Lucifer” or Morningstar—as an aggressive, contrary force. This is because it is usually the first star seen at sunset, and the last star seen at dawn. Based on this phenomenon, people imagined that Venus is a “rebel” who defies the Sun, refusing to disappear as her superior rises, then rushing to ascend as the Sun sets. Even before medieval Christians incorporated Lucifer into their devil myth, most theological beings associated with Venus were perceived as unruly, cosmic shit-disturbers.
Ishtar, the Akkadian goddess of Venus, is no exception. She stole the sacred mes, the powers of civilization, from Her uncle Ea and gave them to the people of Uruk. She insisted on visiting Her deadly sister Ereshkigal, the Queen of the Underworld, and conquered death in the process (with some help from Ea). When She learned Her husband Tammuz had not grieved for Her at all while She was dead, She killed and kicked His ass straight down into hell. When the “hero” Gilgamesh refused to marry Her, She sent the apocalyptic Bull of Heaven after him. And when Her father Anu refused to give Her the Bull at first, She threatened to raise all the dead across the earth and send them to feast on the living. She is also said to have an insatiable sex drive, exhausting all of Her various lovers to death.
If you think that sounds bad, Gilgamesh was a king who tyrannized his people, breaking into their homes and raping all the women. He only stopped when the gods created Enkidu to challenge him, giving him something else to do with his time. Gilgamesh then became so obsessed with finding the secret to immortality that he abandoned his people and left them to fend for themselves. (What an asshole!) So it’s always seemed weird to me that he is portrayed as the “hero” in this story (despite being a tyrant and a rapist), while Ishtar is framed as the “villain” (even though She is divine and transcends all human understanding). The greatest threat Ishtar poses for this megalomaniac is not to his life, but to his ego.
(If Ishtar appeared and said She wanted to marry me, I’d say, “Okay.” Better to be mauled ecstatically by Ishtar’s lovely, blood-splattered mouth than to die by the hand of any mortal man!)
Ishtar appears in Babylonian art as a badass Amazon standing on a goddamn lion, getting ready to beat the shit out of some motherfuckers. Assyrian kings prayed for Her to join them on the battlefield like a Valkyrie and slaughter their foes like cattle. (And if their records are to be believed, She answered their prayers…brutally.) As a warrior goddess, Ishtar was very popular with the Hyksos, who called Her Astarte and paired Her with their chief deity, Ba’al Hadad. When the Hyksos ruled Egypt during the Second Intermediate Period, they brought Ishtar’s worship into the Land of the Pharaohs. And since Ba’al Hadad was identified with Set by the Egyptians, they came to view Ishtar/Astarte as one of Set’s romantic interests as well.
There is a fragmentary Egyptian text from Edfu in which
Yamm, a sea monster, demands the hand of Ishtar in marriage. For a moment, it seems the beast will claim its bride; but Set intercedes, and while the rest of the story is uncertain, there is a similar Ugaritic tale in which Ba’al Hadad rescues Astarte from Yamm. Since Hadad’s name is substituted for Set’s in the Edfu texts, the Egyptian version most likely ends with Set destroying Yamm and marrying Ishtar. Considering Their unruliness and Their shared frustrations with dying-and-rising fertility gods (like Osiris and Tammuz), don’t you think Set and Ishtar make a perfect couple?
Ishtar is often vilified for being so “promiscuous.” This is due to a complete misunderstanding of hierogamy or hieros gamos, the concept of “sacred marriage.” It is a religious rite in which people have sexual intercourse, with at least one of the participants being “possessed” by a deity. Such procedures served a twofold purpose in the ancient world. The practical purpose was to channel the fertility of a god and/or goddess into the crops, livestock, and people of a community. The spiritual purpose was to reach a higher level of consciousness. Under the right circumstances (all of which require CONSENT), a really good orgasm can totally “blow your mind” and make you feel like you’re in tune with the rest of the cosmos. It makes total sense why people would consider that ecstatic moment of self-surrender to be supremely magical. From this standpoint, sex can be much more than just some “dirty” animal act; it can be a divine religious experience that is both self-fulfilling and incredibly humbling.
The clergy in ancient religions that practiced hierogamy are often described as “cult prostitutes” by biblical scholars. This is especially true when it comes to the qadishtu or holy women of Ishtar. Sex did in fact play a part in the beliefs of the qadishtu, and they were ostensibly paid by the laity for their clerical services. But the way I see it, there probably wasn’t always a direct relation between these two things.
First of all, it is unclear whether Ishtar’s holy women actually engaged in hierogamy with everyone who entered their temples, or if just one priestess performed the rite with a king during the annual Akitu spring festival. To be honest, I have my doubts that even the latter case was always true. Many contemporary examples of hierogamy (such as the Great Rite in Wicca) are often performed symbolically (e.g., sticking an athame in a chalice, rather than actually copulating). It is entirely possible that hierogamy wasn’t always practiced quite so literally in pre-Christian times, either.
Secondly, it is wrong to assume that every service the qadishtu provided for their society was sexual in nature. In fact, it is very likely that most of what they did had nothing to do with sex at all. The available evidence would seem to suggest they were more like nuns than nymphs, caring for the sick and the orphaned, keeping chaste, and living their day-to-day lives in quiet, contemplative prayer. So the fact that Herodotus and the biblical patriarchs defined the qadishtu in terms of sex says infinitely more about them and their dirty little minds than it does about Ishtar’s holy women.
Yet another attack on Ishtar is the false claim that She is the alleged “Pagan origin” of Easter. This story goes back to Alexander Hislop, who published a pamphlet called The Two Babylons in 1853. Hislop claimed that Ishtar was originally a mortal Babylonian queen named Semiramis, who single-handedly invented all of polytheism. She then became worshiped as Ishtar—which many Christians claim is pronounced “Easter” for some reason—and created the holiday we now know by that name for herself.
Hislop was partially correct; Easter does in fact have polytheist origins. But its name is actually derived from Eostre, a Teutonic fertility goddess who bears no historical relation to Ishtar whatsoever. The imagery of rabbits and eggs is taken from a myth in which Eostre transformed a bird into a rabbit that could lay eggs (the Easter Bunny). These symbols do not appear anywhere in Ishtar’s iconography, which has plenty more to do with bulls, dragons, lions, and owls. Nevertheless, evangelicals continue to repeat Hislop’s bullshit at every turn, criticizing Easter as a so-called “satanic” rite to Ishtar.
The Burney Relief, depicting an unknown female figure who could be Ishtar or Ereshkigal (but who likely isn’t Lilith)
One thing that really sticks in my craw is when people confuse Ishtar with the succubus, Lilith. In the 1970s, many Pagan writers circulated a claim that Lilith originated not as the “first wife of Adam,” but as a “handmaiden” of Ishtar who served the goddess by bringing men to Her temple for worship. Another claim states that Lilith is really a goddess in her own right; she was later demonized, or so the story goes, when biblical patriarchy replaced the goddess religions of old. And some people seem to think Ishtar and Lilith are really just the same person at the end of the day.
There is no evidence to support any of these theories. Even in pre-biblical polytheist cultures, Lilith was a qliphothic entity that ate newborn children and sapped men of their seed at night. She was never worshiped, but was only warded off with apotropaic spells. This was as true when the Epic of Gilgamesh was being written as it was when the Old Testament was being written. I can accept the idea of people believing Lilith is a goddess today, if that is truly how they feel; but they should admit this is a new belief in the grand scheme of things, and not an ancient one. They should also avoid conflating Ishtar with Lilith, because the two are very different figures indeed. At the very least, the former is my Spirit Mama, and the latter is not.
I first met Ishtar in McClennan County, Texas, during the autumn of 1999. I was about to turn 17, and I had been walking with Set for just over two years. I can’t really explain what drew me to Ishtar so suddenly that cloudy afternoon; the best I can say is that Set “traded” me with Her, and I walked with Her for the following year. They traded me back after that, and I’ve been with Set ever since. I never quite understood why this happened until about a decade later, when I met the woman who became my wife. We met in a Pagan discussion forum, and the only reason we did is because I wanted to meet other people who knew about Set, and she wanted to meet other people who knew about Ishtar. Considering this, we’ve always felt that Set and Ishtar are personally responsible for micromanaging things just so the two of us would meet. And that hiatus I had with Ishtar was the goddess sizing me up as a potential match for one of Her contemporary qadishtu. (I sure am glad I passed the test!)
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.
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.
Why I prefer to display my pentagrams with two points up.
The pentagram is a five-pointed star in a circle, and it is the most prominent symbol associated with Paganism today; but not everyone likes their pentagrams the same. Most often, you will see them with one point up, especially around Wiccans, who are the largest and most visible demographic beneath the Pagan umbrella. But occasionally you’ll see people arrange the symbol with two points up instead, and this sometimes provokes a negative reaction. I have actually been turned away from Pagan events before, believe it or not, just for wearing this kind of pentagram myself.
The reason for this prejudice stems from 19th century Europeans, who popularized the notion that pentagrams mean something different based on how they are drawn, and that this difference is somehow “ethical” in nature. They insisted that one-point-up pentagrams are “upright,” representing “goodness and light,” while two-point-up pentagrams are “inverted,” representing “darkness and evil.” The “inverted” pentagram with a goat’s head goes back to the French occultist Stanislas de Guaita in 1897, and it was later adopted by Anton LaVey as the Sigil of Baphomet in 1966. This has led people to assume that any pentagram with two points up is “satanic,” which isn’t true by a long shot. This symbol is held sacred and drawn differently in many traditions, and it means something unique to each one. Plus, it is hypocritical of Pagans to react so strongly to an image simply because it is linked with “the devil.” We ought to know better than to think people slash cats or eat newborns simply because of something they choose to wear.
I won’t outline the entire history of this symbol, or what it means to all the different belief systems that use it. I’d just like to explain what it means to me personally, and why I prefer to display it the way I do. As far as we Setians of the LV-426 Tradition are concerned, the two-point-up pentagram is not “inverted” AT ALL. We consider it to be exactly the way it should be: right-side up. In fact, whenever we see it displayed the Wiccan way, it looks upside down to us! But that’s OK, we just chalk the difference up to personal preference. A pentagram is still a pentagram, no matter which of its points are facing up or down, and since it is circular, there is no correct “This End Up” position whatsoever. Think of it as a wheel: does it matter which direction the spokes are pointing, as long as the wheel turns?
I don’t care much for de Guaita’s “goat’s head” pentagram, but only because I prefer to keep my pentagrams “empty.” When it’s just a plain old star in a circle with two points up, it indeed resembles the head of a horned animal; but the lack of additional illustration allows for imagining any number of horned critters in the symbol, not just goats. I imagine an antelope whenever I see it myself, which makes me think of Set in His form as the White Oryx. It also reminds me of His Imperishable Ones, the circumpolar stars of the northern sky. For me, this version of the pentagram is not a symbol of “evil” or “hatred for Wicca” at all. Unlike the Sha, it does not belong just to Set or to Setians, and it has only been adopted into the iconography we commonly share since the 1970s. But it is the first religious symbol apart from the Sha that ever made me stop whatever I was doing at the time and take a closer look. I’ve always felt Set looking back at me whenever I look into it, as well. Its soothing effect on me is so great, I wear it around my neck at all times to keep me mindful of Set’s presence (except when I’m showering).
It would be fantastic if people just ditched the “upright” and “inverse” verbiage altogether; it is divisive and small-minded. I prefer to call these images the “standing” and “horned” pentagrams, respectively, so as to break away from this pattern. When a pentagram is displayed with one point up, it is “standing” because it resembles a person doing aerobics, with their arms and legs outstretched. When it’s displayed with two points up, it’s “horned” because it resembles a goat, antelope, or deer. Neither one represents anything “bad” or “evil,” and whether you prefer one or the other is simply a question of aesthetics. There is absolutely nothing to stop a Setian from wearing a standing pentagram if it pleases her to do so; and there are British Traditional Witchraft covens that use horned pentagrams to represent some of their initiatory degrees. So things are not so clear-cut between the two pentagrams as certain “experts” have been insisting since the 1890s or so, and it would be nice if more Pagans understood this.
Some thoughts on what several of Set’s names mean to me personally.
Set is a very complex deity with more names than anyone can count. We can’t even be 100% sure of how the name Set itself was originally pronounced. (All we know for certain is that it contains the consonants S-T; we don’t know which vowels might have been used.) The following is my attempt at explaining what some of Big Red’s names actually mean (or at the very least, what they mean to me personally). However, we must always remember the fact that in Egyptology, new discoveries are made every day, and sometimes an accepted theory will need to be updated or even discarded. For this reason, nothing I write here about Set’s names should be considered “definitive” or taken as “gospel.” This is just one Setian’s perspective on these various voces magicae, so take from it what you will.
As an additional note, this is not an exhaustive list of Set’s names by any stretch of the imagination. There are far too many of them for me to count, and quite a few seem impossible to translate. The following list is limited to those names and titles I actually understand and use.
The most basic and well-known name for Set. It is rendered into English as sts, sth, s(w)th, s(w)t(y), st(y), or st. Its variants are clearly determinative to various Egyptian words for storms, violence, and upheaval. The Greek writer Plutarch suggested that it might mean “the overmastering” or “overpowering.” This is the most popular form of the deity’s name among contemporary Pagans.
The Hellenized version of Set; very helpful for finding quality sources about the deity in academic literature searches. (Try searching for the name Set and you’ll get results on everything from the actual god to random kitchenware.) It also happens to be homonyms with the name of the third son of Adam and Eve in the Bible (who is a totally unrelated figure). So Seth is really best used in conjunction with the additional name Typhon to clarify when one is actually referring to Set (and not the biblical Seth).
Pronounced “SOO-tek.” This variation of Set’s name was popular in the Nile Delta region of Lower Egypt. As Sutekh, He was equated with the Hyksos’ chief deity, the thunder god Ba’al Hadad. This led Set’s cult to adopt many non-Egyptian elements, including the Edfu tale of how He rescued Ishtar from the sea monster
Yamm. I refer to Set as Sutekh most often when I pray to Him alone.
Pronounced “SOO-tee.” This is probably the closest to how Set’s name was originally spoken in Upper Egypt during predynastic times (prior to 3200 BCE). I don’t see or hear people use this variant very often, but I sometimes use it during prayers, especially in times of great need. I feel like calling Set by this name is like calling someone by an intimate pet-name they don’t want anyone else to know about (“Pookie”), which I would only suggest doing if you are already on good terms with Big Red.
“Lord of the Waters,” a name that is given to Set in the Demotic Leiden Papyrus, and which likely refers to His power over the forces of chaos. Strangely, Set shares this name with Jesus Christ, for whom it is also used in the Pistis Sophia. I believe this name represents a point of intersection and dialogue between Setianism and Christianity, and it always makes me think of the Alexamenos graffito.
Pronounced “OSH.” The name of a Libyan desert god who was identified with the holy Sha animal of Set, and who was believed to guide travelers to oases. There seem to be two different theories about Ash: (1) that he is an entity distinct from Set (and possibly a gay consort), or (2) that he is an alternate form or aspect of Set Himself. It could be that the two gods are separate divinities, but that Set will also answer to the name Ash if it is ever used for Him. Either way, I can’t help but think of Ash Williams (Bruce Campbell), the protagonist in the Evil Dead movies, whenever I see or hear this name.
Pronounced “Buh-ALL.” An ancient Semitic title that means “Lord,” and which was used for many different storm gods throughout Mesopotamia. It was inherited by Set when He was identified with the Hyksos deity, Ba’al Hadad. I sometimes refer to the Big Guy as “Ba’al Sutekh” or even just “my Ba’al” when I pray, but it must be understood that Set is not synonymous with all the other divinities who answer to this name. (And just in case anyone would like to know, the female equivalent is Ba’alat.)
Pronounced “YOW SAH-BAH-YOTH.” A Greek corruption of the Hebrew Iah (from Yahweh) and tsebha’oth (“armies”), which together mean “Lord of Hosts.” The name is used in several invocations to Set in the Greek magical papyri. For me, it represents Set’s fondness of donkeys, His sympathy for the Jewish people in Late Antiquity, and His eternal vigilance against the Chaos Serpent.
Pronounced “NOOB-tee.” Meaning “Golden One,” this name was used for Set in the predynastic Naqada civilization. It refers to the prominence of His worship in Nubt (“Gold Town”), a gold-mining desert town in Upper Egypt that later became known as Ombos. I think this name represents Set as a god of life on the frontier, who helps His people find prosperity in the wilderness.
Pronounced “TIE-fohn.” Meaning “Whirlwind,” this name was given to Set in Late Antiquity. It belonged to a monster in Hellenic mythology, and its association with Set was originally an error; but an entire magical system was developed in which Set is identified by this name (i.e., the Greek magical papyri), and the system happens to work. Typhon also sits well with Set’s aquatic aspect, complimenting His role as a desert god. I especially like to use this name while praying to Big Red by the seashore.
The Great Longhorn
Set as the Celestial Bull. In this form, He crushed Osiris beneath His thigh, which was later amputated by Horus. Set’s thigh was then chained to the pole star, whereupon it became the Big Dipper (or as the Egyptians called it, “the Bull’s Thigh”). This aspect of Set always reminds me of the Bull of Heaven in the Epic of Gilgamesh, which also had one of its legs removed and converted into a stellar object.
Great of Strength
Set as the one god who is strong enough to put other gods in their place, as well as to fight the Chaos Serpent face-to-face. I associate this title with Set’s linear immortality (i.e., the fact that He neither dies nor rises again), which distinguishes Him from the rest of His pantheon.
He Before Whom the Sky Shakes
Set as the god of thunder and storms. I think it represents Him as this incredibly destructive force that could potentially destroy the entire cosmos at any time, but which decides to protect the world from monsters instead. Set is the single most frightening entity in existence, and yet He is on our side.
He of the Two Faces
A reference to the Secret of the Two Partners, or the idea that Set and Horus are really two aspects of the same god. This concept is depicted in Egyptian art as a humanoid figure with both the head of Horus and the head of Set, which I regard as the Egyptian precursor to the Tao. Naturally, the Secret of the Two Partners works both ways, and “He of the Two Faces” can also be used as a name for Horus.
Lord of the Red Lands
Set as the Lord of Deserts. Just as the deserts surrounding Egypt provided a “buffer” that protected the country from the rest of the world, so too does Set provide a “buffer” between our created universe and the primordial chaos. A shorter version of this title is “Red Lord,” which I use all the time.
Lord of Twofold Strength
This title reminds me of Set’s dual nature as a both an instigator of change (as seen in the Osirian drama) and a defender of the cosmic order (as seen in the execration of
Master of the Imperishable Ones
Set as the Lord of the circumpolar stars. The Egyptians considered these stars to be ancestral spirits who have achieved the same linear deathlessness that Set experiences. (Hence the term, “Imperishable Ones.”) These stars never descend beneath the horizon (unlike the Sun, the Moon, and the planets of our solar system), but are always located at the center of the sky (for those of us living in the northern hemisphere, at least). This reveals the stellar and nocturnal origins of Set’s worship.
Champion of Ra
Set as the hero who protects and defends Ra from the Chaos Serpent each night. Ra dies and rises again each day, and they are attacked by the monster while undergoing their regenerative process. If the Serpent ever succeeds in swallowing Ra, all things—including the rest of the gods—will cease to exist. When Thoth negotiated his truce between Horus and Set, part of the bargain was that Set would become Ra’s personal bodyguard. He has served Ra in this capacity ever since, and the fact that our universe continues to exist is a testament to His ultimate benevolence. This title is very important to me because it’s an important aspect of Set that most people don’t know or think about.
Son of Nut
While He isn’t the only son of Nut (Osiris being the other one), Set is the god who is most often identified by this title. This is due to the circumstances of His birth; for while Osiris, Isis, and Nephthys were all born in the natural way, Set clawed right out of the sky goddess’ womb. This couldn’t have been pleasant for Nut, but it gives Set the distinction of being the only god aside from Ra to have willed Himself into existence (according to the Heliopolitan cosmogony, at least).
An affectionate abbreviation of “Red Lord” or “Lord of the Red Lands” that many of Set’s people use for Him all over the world (myself included).
A term for the Christian devil that’s inspired by his association with goats. Cloven-hoofed critters are members of the order Artiodactyla, which happens to include most of Set’s sacred animals (including antelope, hippopotami, oryx, pigs, etc.). If Christians can demonize Set and incorporate Him into their version of the devil, then it’s only fair for Setians to reclaim so-called “satanic terminology” for Set. So I will sometimes call Big Red “the Cloven Hoof” in reference to His sacred animals.
A humorous title for Set that we coined right here in the LV-426 Tradition. It refers to both Set’s affinity for donkeys and the fact that He’s a hellraiser.
Prince of Darkness
Another term traditionally used for the Christian devil; it was reclaimed for Set by members of the Temple of Set in the 1970s. It might sound lurid, but it does make a certain amount of sense; Set is a prince, after all, and He does rule the northern sky and the nighttime world. I don’t use this title very much in public, but I do sometimes use it for Set when I pray to Him alone.
Comparing the Egyptian god Set with the Greek titan Typhon, and explaining how the word “Typhonian” became a synonym for “Setian.”
The name Typhon originally belonged to a Titan in Greek mythology who appears as a giant with a hundred serpents for his heads and legs. The Titans were primordial beings who existed before the Olympians (Zeus, Hera, Aphrodite, etc.) and who were ruled by a god named Kronos. After Zeus dethroned Kronos and took control over the universe, Typhon led the Titans to war against the Olympians. But Zeus overpowered him in battle and buried him alive beneath the Earth, from whence he now sends lava and volcanic eruptions. Typhon’s mate is the gruesome snake-woman Ekhidna, with whom he sired such terrible chaos monsters as Cerberus and the Chimaera. So far, I haven’t seen any evidence that the Greeks ever worshiped Typhon (though if anyone out there is aware of such evidence, please let me know). It would seem that he was only ever worshiped against, much like
Apep in Egyptian religion.
Yet the name Typhon also became strongly associated the Egyptian Set after the New Kingdom fell to foreign invaders during the 8th century BCE. Since Set is the god of all things foreign to Egypt, He was blamed for these invasions as well as for the final dissolution of Pharaonic power. So the Egyptians went apeshit and smashed all His statues, scratched His name off every monument, and killed His sacred animals in excessively cruel ways (such as pushing scared and defenseless donkeys over cliffs). They ceased to believe in Him as the Savior of Ra and equated Him with
Apep instead. They also persecuted and sometimes killed anyone who either continued to follow Set or was thought to resemble Him too much (such as redheads). This eventually led to one of the earliest recorded cases of blood libel, in which Alexandrian Jews were accused of practicing “onolatry” (donkey worship), poisoning wells, and murdering people in their religious rituals. Even Yahweh Himself was equated with Set during this period, which meant that Jews and Setians were both being portrayed as something like a pre-Christian “satanic cult.”
By the time guys like Herodotus started writing about the Egyptians in the 5th century BCE, there was far more of
Apep to be found in the popular understanding of Set than there was of Set Himself. So when Herodotus applied the concept of interpretatio graecia to the Egyptian pantheon (identifying foreign people’s gods as Greek gods under different names), he identified this fallacious Set/ Apep hybrid with the Typhon of his own culture. Once he made that link, Greco-Egyptian syncretists started calling Big Red Seth-Typhon, and people who continued to worship or “resemble” Him became known as Typhonians. This was a term of hostile derision, and classical Egyptians, Greeks, and Romans used it in much the same way that Christians continue to use the terms “Satanist” or “devil worshiper” today.
I’m not a big fan of interpretatio graecia; I understand why it made sense to the Greeks, but I’m skeptical of it myself (especially in this case). It doesn’t take an archaeologist to know the Egyptian Set and the Greek Typhon are almost nothing alike. Sure, there are certain superficial similarities; both became scary “bad guys” for a while. But until the 400s BCE at least, it had always been an accepted part of Set’s arc that He is a villain-turned-hero. He also had a proper priesthood of His own and was honored by the Pharaohs; this clearly wasn’t the case for Typhon, who never enjoyed any kind of state-endorsed following.
If Set and Typhon truly are identical, then Typhon’s family in Greek mythology should be like a “second family” that Set has apart from His Egyptian and Canaanite relatives. Theoretically at least, this would mean creatures like the Chimaera and Cerberus are fellow Children of Set, and I should feel some kind of spiritual resonance with them. Theology is not a science, of course, so there’s really no way for anyone to be 100% certain of such things; but aside from the complete absence of any lore to this effect, I’ve never acquired any gnosis that would support this idea. Ekhidna and Her frightening brood just don’t feel like they’re related to Set at all; and if Set is indeed sterile and incapable of siring any children (as He is described in Egyptian mythology), how the hell could He procreate with Ekhidna anyway? While mythology should never be taken literally, there does need to be some internal consistency at the very least. If Herodotus is correct and Set and Typhon are really the same guy, I would expect there to be stories of Typhon being childless, of Set fathering gigantic monster children, or perhaps even both.
However, I must admit I am guilty of using the name Typhon in reference to Set all the time. Isn’t this hypocritical? Aren’t I blaspheming Big Red by using a name that was given to Him out of hatred and fear? Shouldn’t I just stick to His Egyptian names and tell Herodotus to get the hell out of Dodge? And shouldn’t I have more respect for myself than to accept being called a Typhonian?
It has occurred to me that there might be other Companions of Set out there who strongly dislike my use of the Typhon moniker. (And if that’s true, I thank you all for being extremely polite to me, as no one has written me any angry emails about it yet.) But I actually have several very good reasons for sometimes referring to Set as Typhon, despite everything I’ve explained above.
1. It has historical precedent.
There are numerous spells in the Greco-Egyptian magical papyri that invoke a “Typhon” who is not in keeping with the Greek Titan’s character at all. The “Typhon” of the paypri is strongly associated with iron, donkeys, the color red, the Great Bear, and Hellenized corruptions of Hebrew God names. He’s even called “hater of the wicked” in one particular spell, which isn’t like the Greek Typhon at all. Furthermore, many of the spells involving “Typhon” are not malefical (death curses) but are incantations for love, protection, and other varieties of good fortune. Absolutely none of these things are consistent with the Greek Typhon at all—but they are consistent with Set as He was worshiped prior to the Late Period.
Also, I can personally attest that these spells carry quite a lot of firepower and that Big Red responds favorably to them. If He didn’t like being called Typhon, one would think the spells would fail utterly (or have deadly results). There are many different theories as to why magic works, of course, and not all of them are predicated on the assumption that anything “supernatural” is truly happening. But even if the Greco-Egyptian spells are just exercises in self-hypnotism, their Typhonian procedures are clearly modeled on the Egyptian god Set (and not the Greek monster Typhon).
2. The word Typhonian pretty much belongs to Set anyway.
This term simply didn’t exist prior to the emergence of Greco-Egyptian syncretism. When it was first coined, it was used to describe animals that are sacred to Set (including donkeys, fish, hippopotamuses, etc.) and people who resonate with Him. So while it might be taken from the name of a completely different entity, Typhonian has always been used specifically for things that pertain to Set. (This is probably due to the original Typhon never having a cultus of his own.) In fact, we can really just go right ahead and say that Typhonian is really just a synonym for Setian.
3. Typhon is very useful when interacting with academic hair-splitters.
In academia, the Egyptian Set is often called Seth-Typhon to distinguish Him from the biblical Seth (the third son of Adam and Eve). The latter plays an important role in certain heretical forms of Judaism and Christianity that developed during the latest years BCE and the earliest years CE. These belief systems are often called “Sethianism” or “Sethian Gnosticism,” and some scholars will refer to Set as Seth-Typhon to distinguish Him from this other religion. They also tend to use the word Typhonian for things that pertain to Set, while I more often see Sethian used in discussions of Gnosticism.
In a way, this actually kind of stinks; Big Red gets the short end of the stick while an obscure Bible character (who’s barely even mentioned in the book of Genesis at all) gets preferential treatment. But be that as it may, using the name Typhon in conjunction with Set’s is certain to dispel any potential confusion with Sethian Gnosticism (or at least among academics).
(I should note that some of Big Red’s followers think He and the Gnostic Seth really are the same entity. I respectfully disagree with this idea myself, but that’s a discussion for another day.)
4. The meaning of the name makes perfect sense.
Typhon literally means “whirlwind” in Greek, which ties in with Set’s role as a god of wind and storms. The name is also linked to our modern word typhoon, which is the Pacific Ocean’s equivalent to a hurricane. Therefore, the name doesn’t actually mean anything insulting in and of itself; if anything, it’s a totally valid description of Set’s jurisdiction in nature.
5. It describes one of Big Red’s much-forgotten aspects.
Remember how Set chopped Osiris to pieces and fed His penis to a fish? It may seem ironic that a desert god would be associated with an aquatic animal, but it happens to be the case. Fish—especially those of the Mormyridae or elephantfish family—were held sacred to Set in areas like the town of Oxyrhynchus. Hippopotamuses are also sacred to Him, and they are aquatic animals as well, as they spend most of their time in water. So based on Egyptian religion alone, Set most definitely has an aquatic aspect, and Typhon is the perfect name to describe Him in this context.
6. It is a reminder of the evils of blood libel.
The name Typhon was given to Set by people who feared Him so much that they were willing to harm innocent animals and people to drive Him away. It may seem blasphemous to call Him by this name for that very reason, but I find that it’s a good way of reminding myself about the evils of blood libel. The Burning Times, the Salem Witch Trials, the Holocaust, the “Satanic Panic” of the 1980s; these were all just different versions of the same thing that was done to Setian and Jewish people in Alexandrian Egypt. Remembering these horrific events is a huge part of my spirituality (especially the Satanic Panic, since I was actually alive while it was still happening). So reclaiming the name Typhon as a positive term for Set and myself is much the same for me as reclaiming a word like witch is for Wiccans.
7. Set has never killed me for using it.
I’ve been referring to Set as Typhon for a very long time now, and He’s never given me any grief about it. I’m pretty confident that if He didn’t like me using this name for Him, I would already be dead by now.
8. Who cares about the Greek Typhon’s feelings, anyway?
I’ve never met a single person who’s ever claimed to worship or even care about the Greek Typhon in and of himself (and trust me, I’ve searched for such a person far and wide; if there are any Hellenic reconstructionists out there who worship Typhon and who happen to stumble upon this sermon, I do hope they will share their thoughts on this with me). Whenever I meet anyone who works with something they call “Typhon,” the entity they’re experiencing always turns out to be Set upon closer inspection (except in the case of Kenneth Grant, whose “Draconian female” Typhon strikes me as being a misidentified version of the hippo goddess, Taweret.) If the original Typhon has no cult to speak of, and if the Greeks themselves gave his name to Set, then why should I care? Does anyone even care that I’m talking about this?
So are Set and Typhon one and the same entity? Pan-culturalists might say “Yes,” and hard polytheists might say “No”—but who can ever know for sure? All I know is, Set and Typhon don’t seem the same to me, but this doesn’t mean the two figures can’t share the same name. If there can be more than one “Seth,” why on earth can’t there be more than one “Typhon?”