An interview with the Kemetic and Neo-Pharaonic artist Setken regarding his new film, The Praying Mantis God of Ancient Egypt, in which we meet another of Set’s theological colleagues: the Netjer Abyt.
For today’s adventure, we have a very special guest: the artist Setken, who creates Neo-Pharaonic art inspired by the ancient Kemetic or Egyptian Netjeru. Setken’s artistic range extends beyond painting, even though the latter is his primary focus. This includes singing and writing in a band, physique and physical display escapades, as well as writing and acting. This magnificent servant of the Netjeru has just released a mini-documentary about the praying mantis god of ancient Egypt, which concerns a little-known Netjer by the name of Abyt. Listeners can view the film for free at vimeo.com/setken, and I encourage everyone to check it out!
And now, without any further ado, please welcome Setken!
G.B.: Setken, welcome to the show!
SETKEN: Thanks for having me on, G.B., it’s an honor!
G.B.: I just want to say, I’m not just blowing steam up your ass; you really are one of my favorite artists. All of your paintings that you have been producing that I’ve seen over the past—what has it been, a decade?
SETKEN: Yeah, it’s getting close to a decade now.
G.B.: Yes, especially the Winged Set piece. That one has always been my favorite.
SETKEN: It’s still one of my favorites, and I was just remarking to a friend tonight that I don’t know how I actually created that piece as early on in my painting career as I did, because it was way, way ahead of what I was doing at the time.
G.B.: What year was that?
SETKEN: That was 2013, so it’s coming up to its seven year anniversary. But that is still one of my favorite paintings.
G.B.: Well, I guess that opens the door for what we’re really here to discuss tonight: a very well-unknown ancient Egyptian deity by the name of ABYT.
G.B.: A god whom, of whom, or for whom I should probably say, you have just recently directed, produced, and released a short documentary entitled The Praying Mantis God of Ancient Egypt, right? I just want to thank you for making this thing in the first place, because the end product is just amazingly educational and spiritual to watch.
SETKEN: Well, thanks. And thanks for your kind words about my paintings before as well. I didn’t quite get that in. This was a first crack at trying to find new ways to show my art, which is part of how the documentary came out. It’s just I’m happy with the way it’s turned out, you know; there are some rough edges to it. But as a short experimental documentary, I’m happy with how it turned out. I’m glad that you, and now more people, have started to see it as well—that you and others are starting to find some value in it.
G.B.: I’ll probably mention this multiple times as we speak; but for the listeners, this video is currently available at Setken’s vimeo.com website. Is that correct?
SETKEN: Yeah, if you go to Vimeo.com and search for Setken, all of my public videos are there. Alternatively, you can go to my website, and at the very bottom of the page, all of my social media contacts are there along the social media bar at the bottom. There’s like five different socials. You can have a look at it, and that will lead you to the documentary one way or the other, because it’s really all I’ve been raving on about at the moment.
G.B.: Oh SHIT, what was my next question?
[Both speakers laughing.]
SETKEN: You started to ask about Abyt, and because He is unknown and everything, we got distracted.
G.B.: Oh yeah. So, can you talk a little more about this sort of multimedia approach that you are taking?
SETKEN: Sure. So I gave my one and only exhibition at the beginning of 2018, and we made a documentary about that as well (called Neo-Pharaonic). I should pronounce that right, probably [laughs]. That was the name of the exhibition, and we did a 15-minute documentary about that with thoughts are on that Neo site, if people are keen to see that. And whilst I’m glad that I did it, I came away with a feeling of dissatisfaction that this is the only way to show my art, because it’s the accepted way. And that made me think about the history of art and how it’s traditionally being used and shown, and all of that stuff that I’m sure you would probably explore by going to art school, which I never did. And I came out of it feeling, it’s unacceptable that this should be the only way I get to show you my work—which is representative of, you know, hours and hours of creative time, and you know, is painted from the depths of my souls. So I started to think more and more about how there could be different ways to show what I’m doing, and even perhaps use the paintings as a kind of springboard to move into something else; and that’s how it began.
SETKEN: I started to write short film scripts where the paintings were pivotal in the storyline—which you know, was a short five-minute film, so there wasn’t that much of a big storyline to go with it—but it was very visual. But then I came up against the thing of, well to fund something like that is going to be, you know, a small fortune just to get it the basics filmed. Having someone to film it, directors, lighting, and all that sort of stuff. So those projects got left on the sidelines; but fast-forward to pandemic times, and I’ve got the Galaxy Note 10.1 camera phone. It’s more of a camera that it is a phone, with a multimedia station, and I’ve had that for quite a few months and had already worked out that the filming capabilities on this thing. It’s pretty amazing because I had been filming my paintings and putting them up on my Patreon for people. Give them, you know, a good look at them whatever. So, I guess that sat in the back of my mind, and then when Abyt mantis documentary came into being, it was almost like, you know, “The gates are open now! Off you go!” And I did pretty well with all the filming for it myself.
SETKEN: I wrote the script; one piece had to be filmed outdoors. So a friend filmed that for me; but apart from that, all of the raw material I had already made; I didn’t have to wait for funding or someone else to come in and help me. I got a simple editing suite thing that I downloaded, you know, and went from there. And then to pull the final products together wasn’t very difficult at all, because I had yourself, who contributed the music, and my friend Ptahmassu, who contributed the transliterations of the texts. Then I got my friend Christian at Spacetone to do the editing, and it was complete. So the process was a lot smoother and slicker out of necessity, because the other thing is, of course, you can’t have too many people around when you’re in a Stage Four lockdown helping you to make a film. So that’s how that came about.
G.B.: I have to imagine this simpler process is also a little bit more affordable?
SETKEN: Yeah. Yeah, you know I already had the lights—the colored lights that I used in the video. I already had them because I use them in my ritual space. I already had the plinths made up from the Neo-Pharaonic exhibition, you know, the plinths with my cartouche logo on it. I love it. I have a mantis on it.
G.B.: By the way, that was probably my favorite shot in the whole film!
SETKEN: Oh, yeah, it’s cool, huh? That particular mantis is really what I use in place of a statue for Abyt on my altar, because there are no statues of Him yet. So I basically got that from a kid’s playset, painted it up in this super cool black paint, which I just happened to have sitting here that this guy in England makes. It’s meant to be a take on vantablack, which is the black that they use to paint airplanes and things so it looks like you’re looking into a black hole.
G.B.: Well you’ve impressed the hell out of me, because I thought—I thought that was an actual bug in that shot!
SETKEN: Oh, really? Really? Right up to me just saying this now?
G.B.: Yes! Oh my goodness. Either you are really good, or I’m just totally losing my eyesight or something, because I thought it was real!
SETKEN: That particular statue’s been on my altar for some time. So there’s been a lot of heka around it. And besides that particularly amazing black, I gave it those purple eyes, and there’s all kinds of magic associated with that. So it has got a kind of life to it. I’m glad that it had that effect! Maybe everyone else thinks that, as well. That’s really cool! That could be the highlight of my day actually!
G.B.: Oh good! Well that that opens the door nicely to start discussing just who is Abyt, exactly? So I gotta be honest with you, I didn’t even know there were any mantises in Egypt!
SETKEN: Yes. So the Egyptians were very keen observers of nature, and besides wall art, with their depictions of life in the swamps that feature different insects. The Abyt mantis was actually used as a glyph in one place in particular, which was King Seti I’s tomb, and it is a piece taken from The Book of Opening the Mouth. It’s probably not a surprise that people may not be aware of it, because that tomb—until very, very recently—has been closed for about 50 years, because it’s one of the most spectacular tombs as far as tomb decoration goes in Egypt (if not one of the most), and it was deteriorating very badly. So the Ministry of Antiquities closed it permanently, but then they reopened it within the last 18 months—very, very recently they’ve reopened it. And this particular line that features the mantis—which I’ve made a sketch of, that goes all the way through the documentary, is on the poster, and is featured in a colorized version at the top of my painting, Kemetery—it is basically that glyph. And it’s unusual because they’ve emphasized the long neck, which I comment about in the documentary, and because of the habits and the way the creature behaves. Some Egyptologists have remarked that it’s strange we haven’t heard more about the deity [Abyt] than we have, just by its freaky nature alone, and the way it looks like it’s praying and looking at you and everything else.
SETKEN: The other two texts where Abyt is mentioned; His name is spelled out with the hieroglyphs and the determinatives that had been used. I’m studying Egyptian hieroglyphs at the moment. So, a determinative is a glyph which will be placed at the end of a sentence to let you know what is being referred to, in case that’s unclear. They have the two texts that I have mentioned in the documentary; in one case they actually used the pintail duck, and in another this wingless fly—which doesn’t appear very much anywhere else. I believe there are some versions of the text that actually include Abyt Himself, because of course The Book of the Dead was translated over and over inside coffins and things at different stages of Egyptian history. So there would have been scribes who perhaps used different glyphs for different things, rather than translating the exact original over time. But I think this points to the fact that Abyt may not be as easy to “pin down” in one form as, perhaps, some of the other Netjeru. We know that from the glyphs that were used, there are references to Him “flying,” to Him being able to “lift up something,” to something “going away from the ground,” and to something “making its way.” And the reason for this is because it’s not spelled out in the texts exactly what He is. Egyptologists have argued over who and what He is; are the Egyptians referring to a deity? Is it saying that this creature, in and of itself, is the thing that’s showing the person past the king’s house and into the realm of the gods?
SETKEN: Well, we know as mystics and people who have an interest in the numinous that the ancients wouldn’t have just simply listed something mundane in relation to the Divine, and I think the key text here is the one from King Seti I’s tomb—the one from The Opening of the Mouth, where the actual mantis itself is used as the determinative of the word itself in the phrase. And the phrase is, “I have seen my Father in his every form; the form of the Abyt mantis.” Well, the king is divine and born of the Divine. So to suggest that he isn’t would be, you know, a Kemetic blasphemy!
SETKEN: So I think that text is a qualifier as far as, you know, conservative Egyptology goes. My experiences that have developed with the deity over the years paint a picture of Him and who and what He is that is, you know, entirely related to my experience. But I do find synchronicities here and there that crop up, and I also note that the ǀXam tribe in South Africa had a praying mantis god called ǀKaggen. His primary form was a praying mantis, but He also had many other forms, and they emphasize that with Him.
G.B.: Just going back to the glyphs; so I can see the mantis, the bee and the wingless fly, but then they throw in that duck, and it’s like, “Whoa!”
SETKEN: Yeah, I’m still getting to the bottom of the duck thing as well. I’m not sure exactly why the duck is there in that context.
G.B.: This does remind me of another thing, though, that I meant to mention to you earlier, and which would take some further investigation on my part to really delve into it (and I’m not exactly sure how practical that would be). However, I know that Kenneth Grant wrote often about the symbolism of the bee; bees are apparently very significant in the Typhonian Tradition of Thelema for some reason. I’m not the best person to explain why, I’d have to do some further research. I don’t know why that suddenly made me remember that, though.
SETKEN: Now that you’ve given me that thread, I’ll investigate it. The bee is definitely one, like when [E.A. Wallis] Budge did the translation of The Opening of the Mouth. After he did the translation or transliteration, he said it is unclear; he said on the one hand it could be read as mantis; on the other hand, it’s bee; and hornet is in there as well. They also had glyphs for all three of these creatures, so for some reason it’s deliberately unclear. I feel the energy of the bee is much more aligned to Abyt than perhaps the duck, and I’ve noticed that when I paint Abyt in profile, with His head on the side, you could look at that and think it was a bee. Yeah, so I’ll have a look at what Kenneth Grant has written about the bee—which, as I mentioned in the documentary, is pronounced byt. Not Abyt, just byt—and of course, we’re speculating about the vowel sounds; we can only guess at that because the language has been lost. But the bee is one of the determinatives that’s used whenever the king’s name is written. The bee and the reed basically means you are talking about the Pharaoh.
G.B.: Mantises, bees, hornets, wingless flies…and ducks.
SETKEN: Yeah. If you look into the ǀXam tribe (I hope I’m saying that right), [their mantis deity] ǀKaggen is tied up with other creatures as well, like mammals. This isn’t the first time a Netjer would have many forms of many creatures associated with it like that. Look at, for example, Set—we would say that the Sha is most likely His most identifiable and predominant form; but then there is, of course, the oryx and the gazelle, the pig, and panthers, etc. I had a lot of fun painting Set in His anthropomorphic oryx form in one of my paintings.
G.B.: Oh, yeah. I remember that! I love that painting! I only just fairly recently made the connection myself on that point—the fact that Set is also kind of another “Horned God.”
SETKEN: Yeah, yeah, probably the original one!
G.B.: Back to Abyt though. I’m just curious; do we wonder—do we know if it is a male deity or a female deity, or maybe something different?
SETKEN: I think, because in one of the texts specifically, the male is referenced in that one—“I have seen my Father in His every form.” And I sense, when I connect with Him in meditation or whatever, that that He is male. I sense that.
G.B.: When did you first become interested in Abyt, exactly?
SETKEN: So I keep diaries of my dreams, and I will write my dreams down after they happen, and also meditation experiences. And I noticed this praying mantis being, showing up in various contexts. So I was unsure at that stage who and what He was, because I couldn’t find Him attested to in the literature that’s been uncovered over time from ancient Kemet. So the relationship more or less continued with me not knowing. I think that was the way it had to be in the beginning, and to a large degree, it’s the way that it has to be now. I think Abyt is tied up with the higher mysteries of life, and when we get involved with Him, we’re looking “under the skirt” of reality and creation and evolution and beingness—and you may not be prepared for what you’re going to see.
SETKEN: So the more I was seeing and interacting with Abyt in that state, I guess the more voracious I became in my investigation. The Egyptologist, Linda Evans, is the only one who has written an academic paper about the praying mantis in ancient Egypt, and it’s a good paper. I wrote to her about it and didn’t get a reply (which, you know, happens). She made reference to a praying mantis coffin being found, an anthropomorphic coffin, with a mummified mantis inside. And I thought, that’s weird! Because until very recently—let’s say 18 months—we hadn’t found any mummified insects. We know that, for example, the scarab is sacred to Khepera. We found them now—they unearthed a tomb where there were mummified scarabs.
G.B.: That is so cool!
SETKEN: It is so cool! So, I went on a quest to try and find pictures of this mantis coffin and mummy, and I couldn’t find it anywhere. Since Bernard Bruyère is the Egyptologist who discovered the coffin back in 1929, I wrote to the museums in Brussels—because he’s Belgian, and that’s where all his work ended up. Could not get an answer. I tried Google Search, I tried everything, and occasionally I would notice things that happened with the phrase I read earlier (“I have seen my Father in His every form”). That finally came about, after years of looking for it, via Ptahmassu. He’s got access to the hardcore original translations of these texts as they were found back in the early 1900s. So he was able to come up and find that for me. This is how my research seems to go—I’ll have a period of intense looking for something; you let it go, and then all of a sudden, something emerges. And this is what happened with the mantis coffin.
SETKEN: I get this magazine called Nile. And even though their delivery of the magazine is rather random—it seems to show up whenever they feel like sending it out.
G.B.: Oh my goodness! [Laughing.]
SETKEN: It doesn’t seem to be what I’d call, erm…
G.B.: A “periodical”?
SETKEN: [Laughs.] It’s more like an annual at the moment! This company, a book shop in France called Meretseger Books, advertised in there. I thought, “I’m going to write this guy and see if he knows.” His name is Francois, the gentleman who runs the shop, and he wrote back to me. So that was something new, someone writing back is always nice! Unfortunately with academia, if you’re writing to academics, they’re going to be looking for the letters after your name or the institution you’re studying at, and if you don’t have those, they probably relegate you to “this is not worthy of my time” or “I don’t have time to do it,” or whatever.
SETKEN: So anyway, this guy wrote back and said, “Can you give me more information—was this ever published in a periodical?” So I looked and went back to Linda Evans’s paper, and it did have references to where [the mummy coffin] was, because academics have to do that. So I sent [this information] back to [Francois], and within a day, he had sent me an image and a PDF of the mantis coffin, which is anthropoid. The head looks mantis-ish and human at the same time, and then inside of it is, you know, a disintegrated mantis mummy. And when I saw that, the Abyt documentary was born at that very moment, and I just had to do something with it. I just had to. I was in a particularly raw creative state because you know, I’m not working at the moment, because we’re in Stage 4 lock downs. I’ve not been working most of the year, and I just had this open space to do what I wanted to do—and that’s how it came about.
G.B.: That’s such an amazing story; it’s really cool that fellow answered you and sent you the photo. I’m still getting over the fact that they mummified mantises, too!
SETKEN: Right! Now we know they mummified other creatures that we don’t necessarily associate with deity; but is it because we just haven’t associated them with deity yet? Are we waiting for a text that will have the Netjer determinative to say, “Well, this is a deity”? In fact, the Kemetics associated all kinds of creatures with all kinds of gods. So perhaps we need to rethink how the ancients were thinking about deity per se; that’s my take on it.
G.B.: Well it makes sense, and it seems only logical. I mean, a religion in which so much of nature is considered divine; why would they draw the line at mantises, you know? Like there are cats and cows and falcons and ibises and jackals. Why not mantises too, right?
SETKEN: Right. It just doesn’t make sense. Well, I think further down the track, because they are making more discoveries in Egypt. According to archaeology and Egyptology, they’ve only uncovered not even a third of what they know is there. And as ground-penetrating radar gets more and more sophisticated, we’re likely to get a much larger picture of ancient Egypt. And as that emerges, I guess the question is going to be, will Egyptology as a science be able to keep up? Because it’s not changed a lot in the 200 years that it’s been around, and they’ve got some pretty set ideas about how they look at that part of our ancient history. I’m not saying [their ideas are] necessarily wrong; but when a cross-disciplined scientist comes into the fold, I guess like all the disciplines they don’t want to share their work with anyone else that’s going to perhaps challenge their own findings, as we’re talking tenure and publications that need to be changed, et cetera.
SETKEN: But we all know the story of John Anthony West’s friend Robert M. Schoch, who just happened to accompany him on a trip to Egypt and, as I understand it, didn’t have a particularly big interest in Egyptology itself (apart from the general fascination of it that most people have got). He’s standing at the Sphinx enclosure, and he’s a geologist, and he just happens to look at the walls and realize that the dating of the Sphinx is quite likely wrong. It’s thousands of years older than what was thought. So they did test it, they went and tested the enclosure and the Sphinx itself. And the conclusions (according to geology) is that that thing was carved originally about 10,000 years ago. Traditionally, Egyptology will not accept that—they want to align the Sphinx with the reign of King Khufu. So that’s an interesting case in point.
G.B.: So earlier you mentioned ritual space, and I believe that this is the same space in which you filmed the artistic sequences of your film. Is that correct?
SETKEN: So I recreated my ritual space in my outdoor shed, because it’s larger and I could set it up to look more visually appealing. But I used the plinths, the incense, and the lights to get the same kind of feeling that I get in my shrine room. I basically converted my shed into a studio to get those ritual sequences.
G.B.: That is amazing—and also something that I really kind of want to do! [Laughs.]
SETKEN: Yeah, you’d be good at it!
G.B.: So what’s next? What kind of projects are you thinking about exploring next?
SETKEN: Most of the paintings I’ve done this year are studies, which means they are preparations for the final version of that work. So the three studies I’ve created so far—and there’s a fourth one coming—will eventually go into their final painting form. So that’s the next step. There’s more paintings coming featuring sacred texts—they tend to generate paintings on their own. I’m thinking about recreating two of my earlier paintings that, for some reason, I’m either unhappy with (in the case of one), and just that I think that I can tell more of a story in the case of the second (by doing another version of it). So that more on the painting side as far as video projects go.
SETKEN: I’m doing a new video project for Nehebukau, who is one of the snake gods of the Kemetic pantheon. Your listeners will be interested to know that you’ve done the music for that as well! We’ve not really mentioned this, you did the music for the Praying Mantis God of Ancient Egypt documentary.
G.B.: Oh shit! Yeah, I forgot this whole time. [Laughing.]
SETKEN: I didn’t even think about that, but it will be a video project about Nehebukau, rather than a documentary. It’s something a bit different. Then, I am revisiting my painting, Winged Set, which is turning seven years old this year. So there’s a project related to that.
G.B.: Lucky number seven, huh?
SETKEN: Yeah, lucky seven, right? I want to put The Praying Mantis God of Ancient Egypt onto a DVD, with all the uncut ritual sequences. This will be special, just for patrons. So I’ll put that on the same DVD, and that will be something to give to future patrons, you know, who join up whenever, and you get sent that. I also want to go back to Egypt.
G.B.: To revisit some favorite places, or to explore something new?
SETKEN: To explore something new. They’ve reopened Seti I’s tomb, of course, so I’ve got to go there. I want to go back inside the Red Pyramid, just because I have to do that. But I’m also interested in creating a new painting of a mausoleum in Cairo of one of their famous politicians, whose name is Saad Zaghloul; I’d like to paint him and his mausoleum. So they’re the reasons I’d like to return to Egypt.
G.B.: That’ll be a trip!
SETKEN: Yeah, and I guess I want to do a painting about Charles Musès, who created this thing called the Lion Path, and who is famously known as discovering a branch of mathematics. He was also an Egyptologist, and he discovered the Pyramid of King Ameny Qemau (whose name has come up a couple of times recently in Egyptology because they discovered a stele that references him). There was a collapsed pyramid that was unopened—that belonged to someone who they’re pretty sure was his daughter.
G.B.: Yeah, all these new discoveries and stuff. Going back to what you were mentioning earlier, just real quick, about Egyptology changing and what-not. That is one of the things I’ve always loved about Egypt, is that it just seems like for every one thing we reasonably know for sure about what they believed and did, there are countless other things that we don’t. And with new information coming in every couple of decades or whatever, and we’re going to have some new information.
SETKEN: Yes, because new discoveries happen. You would think this would add to our library of how we think about the ancient Kemetic world; but if that library is constantly filtered through an academic lens, but only wants to see something one particular way—or if it’s being filtered through the lens of Victorian England, or if it’s being filtered through the lens of another religion—where they are going to get the same kind of answer? I guess the point I was making back then is, bring on all the new discoveries! But let’s also look at them as ways that we can expand how we’re thinking about the ancients, rather than drawing a conclusion that is just more of the same to bolster up what we originally thought about them. [Kemetic] culture is so rich, it has a much richer yield than perhaps we’re currently paying full attention to anyway.
G.B.: I agree with you completely. Well, I suppose it’s only right I should mention a little bit of my process of how I composed the music for your film real quick!
SETKEN: I don’t think “real quick,” I mean it’s an important part of the documentary! So please, tell us about it!
G.B.: Not too much to it, really; it’s kind of like how you were mentioning earlier with your Galaxy phone. I have a Samsung something or other—I don’t know, I’m no good with this shit. But it’s also got like some pretty nifty apps on it and stuff. I found a variety of voice changers, a variety of synthesizer apps. Earlier this summer, when I first put together the Dua Sutekh EP; well first of all, that whole thing was the result of pandemic-mania. Living in quarantine and not having enough shit to do, and one day playing around with voice changers and changing my voice over and over again. And that’s all [Dua Sutekh] really is, just my voice over and over again on each layer, manipulated to sound like it’s not.
SETKEN: I didn’t know that!
G.B.: And with Mantis Religiosa, the piece I did for your film, I didn’t quite keep it that “pure.” I used a couple of different synthesizer apps that I found that replicate old-school sequencers, like the kind of shit where they don’t even have any keys on the instruments, you’re just playing with dials and everything, you know? I started with that to create the two basic structures of the piece, because it really ended up being divided into two. I’m not quite sure why, it just ended up that way. That was the baseline for the piece, and then I went over that with my voice changer technique to make it a little bit, you know, rawer and fuzzier. I really wanted to capture the idea of fluttering insect wings, but couldn’t quite find the right noise samples. So I just had to kind of get creative and make it myself. But that’s not to say that there is no sampling at all, because I did decide to sample from one of my very favorite horror movies: Quatermass and the Pit from 1964. A fantastic British horror movie about—you guessed it—mantises from outer space! Mantises that genetically modified our primate ancestors to produce the witches and warlocks that roam this planet today. That’s some pretty heavy shit!
SETKEN: I love that film, and I only recently watched it because of your reference to it on In the Desert of Set. I really liked that film, and I know it’s very much the era of crappy BBC effects and everything, right?
G.B.: But still a great story.
SETKEN: It was a great story, and I liked what they did with that sequence where they hooked up whatever that device was that could go back in time, and there was that mass of insect people overcoming the planet and all that stuff flying on the sand coming to Earth; I think it was genius. But what you did with that; I was going to ask you. The very beginning of the track, where the words Mantis Religiosa are spoken—I didn’t know that was you, and I actually thought it sounds like Vincent Price. Is that what you’re going for?
G.B.: With a lot of help from the voice changers!! [Laughter.]. Thank you! It’s sort of like a little homage to Alice Cooper’s Welcome To My Nightmare, the sequence with the Black Widow and Vincent Price showing off his spider collection. Which, by the way, if you ever find a mummified—if you ever find evidence of mummified spiders, don’t tell me, okay? Let’s just draw the line there!
SETKEN: [Laughing.] Okay. I’m pretty sure there is a spider glyph.
G.B.: There would have to be, I’m sure; I know there’s scorpions.
SETKEN: Definitely, and there is a scorpion goddess, who is a rather powerful being. But yeah, I’ll find out if there’s a spider glyph, just for you.
G.B.: Oh God. [Laughing.] Okay, last question. so I’m sure that there are relatives of my family—or somebody’s family—watching this documentary at home, and they’re wondering, “What the fuck is there a mummy stripping? What’s with that stripping mummy?”
SETKEN: That’s a very good question. So I referenced earlier that I’d made some short film scripts because I was looking at ways of trying to tell the story of paintings in a more creative way, and I have a mummy costume in my repertoire of costumes that I’ve held onto—from when I used to be a stripper. And the mummy costume was a particularly good one that didn’t get a lot of use because in fact it was part of—I did this mini Rocky Horror Show version, okay, and the idea was that I would do two characters from The Rocky Horror Show and two or three songs. From that, whilst hosting an event—and I did actually have a Halloween event that I got hired for years ago when I was living overseas; I think I’ve actually got that on my Vimeo and I tried to make it private, but I’ve got it as part of my profile for Star now, which is an actor’s website—because you know, we need to think of all of our skills and different ways of making money when you’re not allowed to work in a gym because the chief medical officer thinks it’s a breeding ground for bugs.
SETKEN: So anyway, I digress; I had the mummy costume as part of Rocky’s costume for The Rocky Horror Show, and I thought I could use that mummy because the concept has not been lost on me—looking deeply into the symbolism of ancient Egypt as a cocoon for the soul to rise out of. So I’ve used it as something along those lines in the documentary. And the idea of projecting alternating pictures of the coffin and the mummified mantis because you realize that’s what’s going on while all of that is happening right now. Having that projected onto my body onto the mummy wrappings as I go emerging into something else.
SETKEN: I’m interested in a era of photography and video from the 50s and 60s called the Athletic Model Guild, and it was the beginning or perhaps the precursor to bodybuilding. Bob Mizer, the guy who created it, was interested in the male physique as I am—not only as an artist, but as an amateur bodybuilder, I guess, even though I have professionally competed and stuff like that. I still consider myself an amateur, because I’ve only recently got back into some sort of shape. And I guess wanted to show it off, and was able to weave that into the artistic interpretation of what I was doing with the documentary. And so I think people will definitely look at that thing—What the fuck is this? What’s going on with this? But I think I’ve weaved it in a way that is kind of interesting certainly. It was fun for me to do. But if you’re looking for the inspiration for it, look up Athletic Model Guild, and that should answer some of some of those questions! Of course, I’ve used my makeup and stuff that I use whenever I’m public as Setken, so that of course was in there too. That wouldn’t be used in a legit AMG shoot if I was ever to recreate one. But anyway, these are the things we do with artists to take, you know, different takes on things.
G.B.: That’s really fascinating. As you know, I’ve been working with all kinds of public domain footage from yesteryear. I have like a curious fascination with old footage I guess. Not sure if “industrial films” is like the right term, but like, films that were made not necessarily as like to tell a story or whatever, they’re just showing some aspect of culture or whatever that you don’t really see much anymore, or at least not everywhere today. Is that something that still happens today with the Guild?
SETKEN: Bob Mizer passed away some time ago, and he left all of his work—a considerable library of negatives and prints and film—and that’s created the Bob Mizer Foundation, which you contribute to so they can hire people to catalog and preserve these negatives and films and prints because they really are telling an interesting story about the male physique. And what we now know as bodybuilding was starting to emerge into Western society and culture after perhaps not being considered for thousands of years. The Greeks were really the last ones to really look at, and specialize in, the male form to the degree that they did. So it’s interesting to look at it through that lens. There’s also the looking at it through the lens of homoerotic male art and looking at the male body in a sexual context, which of course was taboo then, and is to a degree now, as well as how we consider the male body in the current context and the sexualizing of it. So all of that was there in what he was doing, and there is some sordid stuff because the models that he had—he had this system of “hieroglyphics,” for want of a better word, that he used to make notes to himself about who the model was and whether or not they might they may be interested in sexual persuasions that were considered illegal at the time. So there’s that stream as well, which is interesting.
G.B.: What a horrible way to live.
SETKEN: Yeah, he was fascinating, and his is an art form in and of itself. You look at his art and you say that’s Bob Mizer photography, the same way that you might recognize a [Robert] Mapplethorpe painting. He had a style happening, you know, right from the get-go.
G.B.: That’s really cool that you were able to work that influence into this. Quatermass, mantises, the male physique, and the—say it again? The AMG?
SETKEN: Yes that’s right, the Athletic Model Guild.
G.B.: This is such an eclectic web of ingredients!
SETKEN: I think so! I very much got told earlier this year by one of the Netjeru that it’s time to get your stuff out there. Like do it, do it, and I’ve held back on a lot of artistic stuff at my own over the years for whatever reason. So this documentary was in some ways a crude manifestation of a lot of things coming together in one. I’m happy with the way it turned out.
G.B.: Well, thank you so much once again for joining me here tonight, Setken it’s been a real treat to have you onboard. Thank you for being my first and only guest on the podcast so far! And thank you so much for the opportunity to contribute to your project. I just really loved the film, and I hope that everyone out there listening will go watch it on Vimeo.com and perhaps give some consideration to visiting your Patreon account as well!
SETKEN: Yes, that would be cool! Every bit helps. I do keep Patreon-only content for people; you want to reward the people that have gone that little bit step further to invest in what you’re doing. I’m very grateful for my patrons, I’m very grateful you asked me to do this podcast, and I’m grateful for your amazing contribution to the documentary.
G.B.: Thank you! And on that note, Dua Abyt, and SET BLESS!
SETKEN: Dua Abyt! Dua Sutekh!
And to close out today’s adventure, here is the aforementioned track—Mantis Religiosa—that I composed for Setken’s film. Again, listeners can view The Praying Mantis God of Ancient Egypt at https://vimeo.com/setken, and if you enjoy this little tune I’ve cooked up as an offering to Lord Abyt, you can stream and download Mantis Religiosa for free at gbmarian.bandcamp.com.
On the conflation of all Setian spirituality with what Western occultists call “the left-hand path,” and why this is problematic.
Setianism is often linked with something Western occultists call “the left-hand path,” and this is thanks largely to the Temple of Set. The term originates from Hindu and Buddhist Tantra, in which the Vama Marga or “left-handed way” to enlightenment involves practices that most orthodox believers find “repugnant” (e.g., erotic mysticism). Helena Blavatsky, the founder of Theosophy, appropriated the name for virtually any kind of Western occultism she didn’t like. Ever since then, it has been evocative of “black magic” and “devil worship.”
Most other occult writers followed Blavatsky’s example in this respect, including Aleister Crowley, the founder of Thelema (who was himself regarded as a “brother of the left-hand path” by many of his contemporaries due to his controversial views and practices). The first Western writer to actually adopt the left-hand path (or “LHP” for short) as a positive self-label was Kenneth Grant, a protege of Crowley’s who developed his own “Typhonian” school of Thelema. Grant’s philosophy hinges on Set rather than Horus, and it has much to do with contacting qliphothic forces from alternate universes via the use of sexual magic. Grant was also a UFOlogist and a pioneer in Lovecraftian occultism, or the use of H.P. Lovecraft’s “Cthulhu Mythos” in actual esoteric practice. His use of the term “left-hand path” is probably the closest I have seen among Western sources to the original Tantric idea of the Vama Marga (perhaps because Grant studied under an actual Indian guru, Ramana Maharshi).
The next Western writer to adopt the left-hand path was Anton LaVey, founder of the Church of Satan. LaVey conceptualized the LHP as being like a carnival huckster’s take on spirituality: it’s all “make-believe,” we are just meat machines that cease to exist upon death, and there are no actual gods or spirits to hear any of our prayers. But at the same time, there is nothing wrong with all of this “make-believe” so long as it enriches and empowers the “believer.” In LaVey’s worldview, conventional religions (“the right-hand path”) use made-up dogmas to control the masses, while the left-hand path uses such fantasy to liberate the individual instead. Success is measured not by any spiritual advancement, but by purely material milestones. For example, a successful actor or musician would be considered far more adept at “the black arts” than someone who can recite each of the Enochian Keys by heart, but who flips burgers at McDonald’s for a living.
Michael Aquino, the founder of the Temple of Set, developed a radically different construct from that of LaVey. His LHP is a more metaphysical process of “immortalizing the psyche,” with the potential achievement of a sentient afterlife being the ultimate goal. For Aquino and his followers, the problem with conventional religion is that it stifles the powers of the mind, leading to a total dissolution of consciousness after death. If people just ditched such creeds and started exercising their minds intellectually and metaphysically, they’d have a much better chance of becoming discarnate alien intelligences when they die—or so the theory goes. If there is one element of LaVeyan belief that Aquino maintained, it is the claim that authentic LHPers do not actually “worship” any of the forces they evoke in their magic (including Set Himself). Aquino’s take centers on worshiping one’s own highest potential to the exclusion of anyone or anything else that might (or might not) exist.
Many additional Western LHP perspectives would bloom over the following decades, including those of Zeena and Nikolas Schreck, Michael W. Ford, and Thomas Karlsson. Notable themes that many sects seem to share include autotheism (the worship of oneself); an indiscriminate affinity for so-called “dark” forces (like conflating Set with
Apep); an intersection of Gnosticism, hedonism, nihilism, and/or anti-cosmicism; and a rather unfortunate disposition toward right-wing sociopolitical ideologies (from American Libertarianism to outright National Socialism). The very worst example of this would be the Order of the Nine Angles, whose supporters are known to be terrorists and white supremacists. Even among LHPers who do not entertain such views seriously, there is an ugly tendency to glorify fascist imagery (often because it is “shocking” or “cool”), going all the way back to Anton LaVey’s inclusion of “Might is Right” (a racist diatribe by Ragnar Redbeard) in 1969’s The Satanic Bible.
Though many Setians identify as “left-hand path,” not all of us do. Part of the confusion on this stems from the fact that many Setian writers are either Temple of Set members or adherents to some variation of its philosophy. This has always been something of a “pet peeve” for me personally, because I think the word Setian really belongs to Set. It is understood that not all Setians will believe or practice the same way, as Set loves variety and freedom. But if any particular theme should be the one common element that we all share, that theme is and must be SET HIMSELF—not the Book of the Law, The Nightside of Eden, the Satanic Bible, or the Book of Coming Forth By Night. This does not preclude Setians from sharing additional interests; but Set was there long before Vama Marga, Typhonian Thelema, LaVeyan Satanism, the Temple of Set, or any other LHP variant, and a person doesn’t need EITHER of those things to know Set and walk with Him. To claim otherwise is to ignore the fact that Setianism began over five millennia ago as a North African animist and polytheist tradition in which our Namesake was clearly revered and venerated (as He deserves to be).
Which returns us to the matter of right-wing ideological influences in Western LHP circles. This rather disgusting tendency is made all the more revolting whenever it happens to manifest among so-called “Setians.” For one thing, Set is an Egyptian god, and the Egyptians were a North African people. They were PEOPLE OF COLOR, you idiots. We owe everything to them, too; there is not a single white person who would be walking with any of the Netjeru today if it hadn’t been for these blessed ancestors. So if you pay lip service to an Egyptian god while supporting white supremacy, you are a fucking idiot and you deserve to have your ass handed to you. Furthermore, Set is the absolute WORST mascot for any kind of fascist cause, given that His hatred for authoritarianism is purer than venom. We call Him “He Who Commands the Riot” for a reason, you know. Set is a god who smites other gods whenever they need smiting, and He has even less patience with human megalomaniacs. If you take His name but support tyranny, you are no Setian; you are just a servant of
Apep in disguise—and we Setians know just how to deal with Apep!
I’m willing to bet that most of Set’s people today are probably Kemetics or some other flavor of devotional polytheist—or at least, that is how it looks across the internet (which is probably a better reflection of things today than it was in the 1990s). We devotionalists have just as much right to Set’s name as any Thelemite, Satanist, or Chaos Magician (if not more), and I for one insist on taking ownership of the term Setian for this reason. LHPers are welcome to walk with Set too in my book, but they are NOT welcome to look down their noses at those of us who actually revere and venerate Him as the ancients did. And those who favor any of that “might is right” fuckery should just pack their shit and leave. It seems egregiously stupid that I should even have to say this to anyone, but y’all are just gonna have to live with the fact that there are Setians who worship and pray to Set, who are animists and polytheists, and who believe in trying to make things better for everyone, not just ourselves.
Three brief sermons in which I discuss Set’s affinity for the color red, why Setianism is substantially different from many other religions, and how the Red Lord saves us all every night.
Red isn’t just a color; it’s a part of Set Himself. Or to put it another way, the Red Lord doesn’t just “like” the color red; He is the very essence of redness.
Within the spectrum of visible light, red exists between orange (where red meets yellow) and violet (where red meets blue). Technically, its wavelength is approximately 620–740 nanometers on the electromagnetic spectrum. It has historically been associated with aggression, blood, heat, lust, and passion. It’s also linked to the planet Mars and the sphere of Geburah on the Qabalic Tree of Life. Mars, of course, is named after the Roman God of war, who is often conflated with the Greek God Ares. (Hence why Mars is so often associated with hostile alien space invaders, as in H. G. Wells’ The War of the Worlds.) Geburah is where the gods pass judgment and destroy things, causing us all to be transformed (whether we want to be or not). It’s also the sphere where the gods take whatever steps they need to beat the crap out of evil.
Red is further linked to iron, which is likely because (1) there is actually iron in our blood and (2) Late Stone Age people often used ochre, a clay that is given a reddish tint by iron oxide. Even today, tribal peoples still use ochre to treat animal skins, repel insects, stop bleeding, and protect themselves from the sun. Red also continues to be the preferred color for warnings and danger signs (both in human society and in nature), with the highest threat levels being “red alerts.”
The Egyptians associated Set with red because He is a storm deity. While most Thunder Gods are linked with fertility and kingship due to the part storms usually play in fertilizing crops, storms almost never occur in the Nile Valley. The crops there are sufficiently irrigated by the Nile itself when it floods each year; so even when storms do happen, they tend to have disastrous consequences. They more often occur in the deserts on either side of the Nile Valley, the sands of which are colored red (making Set “the Lord of the Red Lands”). Red-haired animals and people were likewise linked with Set as well, and by the time He was completely demonized during the Late Period, it wasn’t uncommon for such animals and people to be killed as a way of execrating Him. Redheads continued to be demonized by European Christians, who thought such people were especially prone to “worshiping the devil” and becoming “witches.” This construct came from the Egyptians, who considered Set to be the original “red-headed stepchild.”
In many Typhonian spells from the Greek magical papyri, the directions call for magic words to be written in donkey’s blood (which is often described as “Typhon’s blood”). In the LV-426 Tradition, we think that harming any of Set’s sacred critters will definitely draw His attention to you, but not in a way that any sane or rational person would want. I do, however, think that the more red things you can include in your rituals, the better. I prefer to light red candles for the Big Guy, myself.
What does it mean to be “religious”? The answer to this question is much more nuanced and evasive today than it was hundreds of years ago.
When I use this descriptor in relation to myself, it often catches people off guard because I just “don’t seem like the religious type.” I don’t attend any kind of church, take any scriptures literally, try to convert people, or seek to legislate other people’s lives. I also cuss like a sailor and tend to be hypercritical of organized religion in general (to the point of supporting the strict taxation of all churches).
Some people dismiss my religiosity for just these reasons, because their definition of “religion” is limited to the conservative Christian model. And since my religion does not fit within those specific parameters, people always want to tell me I am “spiritual, not religious” at best.
Excuse me, but let’s make something perfectly clear: I am a SETIAN, and SET is my god. I do what I do out of profound reverence and devotion to HIM. The only theological expectations I care to meet are HIS; the standards of other faiths DO NOT APPLY.
Furthermore, Set is not some bullshit authoritarian shepherd god; He has nothing to do with giving commandments, judging humanity for its sins, or bullying anyone with the threat of a miserable afterlife. Set is a cosmic individualist in the truest possible sense of the term; He demands not only freedom for Himself, but for EVERY sentient individual to be the unique and different creature they really are. And even in 3200 BCE, this included everyone from foreigners and immigrants to LGBTQ people to nomadic desert peoples to others who just “didn’t fit in” for whatever reason (especially if they were redheads).
Set is a god who approves of having drag queens read books to children at public libraries, for instance, while contemporary Christians still quarrel over whether Jehovah even accepts such lovely people as human beings. So do not presume to judge MY religiosity according to YOUR (highly questionable) standards. As far as Setians like me are concerned, your own religious priorities are absolutely fucked!
As for the “spiritual but not religious” crowd, I fully support everyone’s right to self-identify as they please. I reject this label myself, for it simply doesn’t do me justice. Walking with Set is not a “hobby” or a “game,” it’s a motherfuckin’ QUEST that takes your entire life, and which continues long after you die! I will not belittle myself, my god, or the magic we work together by referring to it as anything else BUT religious. And those who want to bash all religion in general because “it’s all the same” can kindly kiss my ass.
“Have I been saved? Yes; in fact, my god saves me every day. He saves you every day, too, even though you don’t believe. The fact that the world is still here when we wake up each morning—that we don’t all just blink right out of existence while we’re asleep—is a direct result of His operations out there, on the Frontier of Creation. He’s out there right now, fighting for all of us. He doesn’t care if you’re strong or weak, noble or corrupt, pious or irreligious. Nor does He care that most people vilify Him, if they acknowledge Him at all. Whether He is cursed as a devil or dismissed as a fairy tale, it makes no difference to Him. It’s neither His job nor His concern to judge the world. Even if no one ever rooted for Him at all, my god would still be out there, saving the whole of Creation each night!
“Don’t get me wrong; He does notice those mortals who call out to Him in praise. Given that there are so few of us, it would be hard for Him not to! And though He has His own battles to fight, He shares His strength and His steel with us. When we have tribulations that are too much for us to bear alone, we can ask Him for strength and clarity of vision. We can use our words of power to actually become Him in human flesh, and nothing—not even the Chaos Serpent itself—can stand against us when we do! When we perform this Great Work, we are saving our own little parts of the world. With our Holy Father, salvation becomes a team effort; our victories are His, and His victories are ours!
“That is why Set, alone of all the gods, has my undying loyalty. That is why the subjective realities of other faiths can just never compare to mine. There are no threats, no guilt trips, and no extortions here. It all comes down to just one thing, baby: making sure there’s always tomorrow!”