The Gods Can Handle Our Anger

It’s okay to be angry or upset with the gods, and it’s okay for us to tell Them so as well. 

A very good friend of mine occasionally becomes profoundly angry with Set and/or the other Netjeru for not saving them from the horrific things they endured as a child. When this happens, they put away every religious icon they own. When they are especially upset, they might even smash these holy images in a fit of blind rage. Then they feel guilty and anxious afterwards, fearing the Netjeru will punish them for being so disrespectful.

(I will not go into details, but I do wish to be extra super double sure I’m making myself absolutely clear on this point: these behaviors are coming from a place of pain and fear, not from a place of pride or insolence. Any comments that assume otherwise will be removed. Thank you.)

When my friend confides in me about these occasions, I do what I always do. I gently remind them that no, they are not bad for feeling anger, and no, they are not bad for expressing their anger to the gods.

The ancient Egyptians got angry with the Netjeru all the time, even threatening to withhold offerings from Them if They failed to answer certain prayers in times of great need. Here, the god-and-worshiper relationship is symbiotic and reciprocal. We must give to the gods, but the gods must also give to us. If the gods give and we do not, They can condemn or abandon us; and if we give and the gods do not, we can condemn or abandon Them.

Mind you, the Netjeru are not mere genies who exist just to grant our wishes. It is unreasonable to condemn or abandon Them for not solving all of our problems for us. But it is at least reasonable for devotees to expect some kind of benefit from worshiping Them. We deserve to at least feel guided or supported by our gods somehow; and if a deity can’t even seem to deliver that much for whatever reason, it is only natural for a person to stop worshiping Them.

The idea that we are obligated to continue worshiping a particular god no matter what They do or don’t do for (or to) us is profoundly un-Setian. I would argue it is even un-Kemetic, since each of the Netjeru can potentially receive angry tirades or threats of abandonment from Their followers. Besides, even if you scream obscenities at a Netjer, you are still communicating with Them in a heartfelt manner. You are still engaging Them in a kind of prayer. You are just praying a prayer of grievance rather than gratitude, if you will.

So I tell my friend it’s absolutely okay for them to put away their religious icons whenever they feel upset with the gods. It’s even okay for them to smash said images when they are especially distressed (provided, of course, that they actually own the icons they smash, and no person or animal gets hurt in the process, including themselves).

Learning about the Netjeru turned out to be very helpful for my friend; yet they are still trying to reconcile their past with the idea that there are actually gods out there who care about them. If this is true, they ask me, why then did the gods allow them to be harmed as children?

There is very little anyone can say to answer such a question that is actually helpful (or even truthful, in my opinion at least). All I know is, if the gods are truly gods, They are big and tough enough to take our anger, especially if it’s coming from someone who is confused and hurting very deeply.

I also don’t believe for one second that the gods hold it against anyone for being traumatized and needing help. I think Set would actually prefer that my friend curse and smash His icons to having them traumatize any of the other people in their life. No matter what they might do to His icons, my friend can at least be sure they won’t hurt Set Himself; the same cannot be said for their loved ones.

There aren’t any easy answers for when bad things happen to good people. But if you happen to find yourself in a situation similar to that of my friend, I just want someone to have told you it’s okay. Set is not going to smite anyone just for being traumatized and crying out to Him for help—not even if the only way they are currently able to seek help is combative or confrontational. (He can always smite us for other reasons, of course; but Big Red is big enough to handle our feelings, even the really bad ones.) 

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It’s Okay To Have Demons

Expecting people to be John Rambo—including Setians—is unrealistic.

It’s fucked up how the behaviors we develop to survive as kids can bite us in the ass when we are grownups.

As a kid, I was conditioned to believe that asserting myself is bad, wrong, mean, and selfish. I was taught that if I love someone, I should just keep my mouth shut whenever they do anything that disappoints me or hurts me. If I speak up about it, I am being an asshole and I don’t deserve to be loved.

How insidious it is that such conditioning can affect us even as adults. I recently lost a good friend who occasionally did things that disappointed me. I kept silent about my feelings for so long that when I finally tried to express myself, it destroyed the friendship. Then I started hating myself for even trying to talk with this person about my misgivings at all. “If I just hadn’t said anything, we would still be friends,” my brain keeps telling me. “I ruined this friendship, and it’s all my fault.”

This kind of childhood conditioning can even affect your professional life. If I land a better job and my current employer gets upset that I am leaving, I feel like a horrible person. I feel like I’m an ungrateful prick. I feel like I’m being mean and something bad is going to happen to me, as a “punishment.” Even when my logical mind knows I am doing something good for myself, even when I remember that other people hire into better jobs all the time; I still feel like I am bad.

Well the reality is that NONE of these things is true. The voice that whispers these awful things to me inside my brain is not my own voice, but the voice of my childhood trauma. When I blame myself for ruining that friendship, or when I hate on myself for doing something that’s good for my own professional development, it is not really me that’s speaking; it’s my male parental unit. It’s the man who bullied me and manipulated me when I was little; the man who was never impressed by anything I tried to do; the man who delighted in making me feel powerless, trapped, and afraid.

I resonate with Set because He refuses to control or be controlled. Like Him, I chafe at the thought of anyone telling me who or what I can or cannot be. And like Him, I absolutely detest the idea of trying to control anyone else’s life. When I came to Set at age 14, it drove my male progenitor nuts. Here was something he couldn’t take away from me, no matter how much he hit me or tried to shame me. He could burn all my books and break all my sacred objects, but he could never remove Set from my heart. And this gave me the resilience I needed to truly start defining myself apart from the toxicity in which I was raised.

But even though I started on this quest all those years ago, the journey is still in progress. I am still learning how things in my childhood are affecting my adult life. I am still learning how to not hate myself when I do things that are good for me. I am still learning how to love myself and not listen to that ugly voice in my mind that expects me to fail. I am still learning how to determine myself and to not let anyone else define me.

So take it from a Setian who has been walking with Big Red for over 24 years… Ain’t NONE of us here are “Nietzschean supermen.” It’s totally OK if you are still fighting demons from your childhood. Nobody, least of all Set, expects you to be John Rambo. (And even if Rambo were real, he’d be suffering from PTSD too, just like all the rest of us.) If you struggle with hating yourself because of traumatic things that happened to you, you are not alone by any stretch of the imagination. And it’s absolutely OK. Just try to remember that when you get to feeling that way, it’s your trauma talking; it is NOT reality. And try to remember too that talking about your feelings is a STRENGTH, not a weakness. Listening to others talk about their feelings, and helping them feel comfortable enough to share them, is a strength as well.

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Nephthys, the Dark Midwife

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.

Women from popular culture who have a “Nephthys vibe.” From left to right and up to down: Guinan (Whoopi Goldberg) from Star Trek: The Next Generation; Death from DC/Vertigo’s The Sandman comics by Neil Gaiman; Elise Rainier (Linda Shaye) from the Insidious horror film franchise; goth rock artist Siouxsie Sioux; Morticia Addams (Carolyn Jones) from The Addams Family; and Lydia Deetz (Wynona Ryder) from Beetlejuice.

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.

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