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The Monster Film As Mythos

Explaining the LV-426 belief that monster movies are more sacred and profound than any Kirk Cameron flick.

 

I enjoy interpreting films, TV shows, and popular music from a Setian perspective. This isn’t just a “hobby”; it’s an essential part of my spirituality. I believe Set and other Pagan gods like to reveal themselves through popular cultural media, and in ways that are more often subliminal than not. It’s easy to recognize the goddess Isis in that old 1970s TV show, The Secrets of Isis, where she’s an actual character who fights crime. But have you ever noticed how similar James Cameron’s The Terminator (1984) is to the myth of Isis fleeing from Set to ensure the safe birth of Horus? Just imagine that Sarah Connor is Isis, Kyle Reese is Osiris, the Terminator is Set, and John Connor is Horus; see what I mean?

I’m not suggesting that James Cameron actually did this on purpose. I just think one or more of the gods probably reached into his brain back in 1984 and shuffled some stuff around in there while he was writing the script. I think this happens all the time, not just with James Cameron, but with potentially any filmmaker. I know it sounds silly or perhaps even “crazy,” but the idea that the gods would leave “secret messages” for us to find in movies, TV shows, or even Saturday morning cartoons is no different from divining omens in tea leaves or the Zodiac. Just because these media are human inventions doesn’t mean the gods can’t use them for their own purposes. If they can reveal themselves through clouds and trees and dreams, they can just as easily do the same thing through anything created by human hands.

“But G.B.,” I hear some of you asking, “What about things that are purposely inspired by Egypt? Things like Stargate SG-1?” Well my answer to that question is so complex, I had to write a whole other sermon about it to do the subject any justice. But with very few exceptions, I am almost never impressed with anything that’s intentionally inspired by Egyptian mythology.

I find that such works tend to fall into one of three clichéd categories:

  • The “killer mummy” movies, in which the mummy is always some ancient evildoer who seeks to claim the modern reincarnation of his long-lost love. (This includes pretty much any film called The Mummy or that has the word “Mummy” somewhere in the title, like 1964’s The Curse of the Mummy’s Tomb.)
  • The “ancient astronaut” movies, in which the Egyptian gods turn out be gooey aliens that fly around in spaceships. (This would be where Stargate fits in.)
  • The “biblical epic” movies, which all treat the book of Exodus like it’s a goddamn court transcript. (This includes such esteemed classics as The Ten CommandmentsThe Prince of Egypt, and Exodus: Gods and Kings.)

You’d expect there to be more of Set in something like Gods of Egypt (in which He’s an actual character) than there is in a movie like the original Godzilla from 1954 (which has nothing to do with Egypt on the surface); but I find the opposite is more often true. Whenever Egyptian mythology is intentionally adapted into fiction, the result is often far less interesting than the original source material. Cinematic portrayals of Set in particular have absolutely nothing to do with how anyone has ever worshiped Him in real life. (The next time you watch the original Conan the Barbarian from 1982, bear in mind that feeding naked women to giant snakes has never been a standard feature of Setian religious practice.) Yet there are other creative works that don’t intentionally invoke Set in any way, but which do so serendipitously, and which are more consistent with actual Setian ideas and values. This to me is a sign that these films have been “touched” by Set, especially if the people who created them have never heard of Him before.

In my opinion at least, the films that seem to resonate with Set the most are monster movies—sci-fi, horror, and fantasy romps that feature aliens, giant animals, mutants, supernatural beasties, or even cryptids like Bigfoot or the Loch Ness Monster. No matter what creatures they might feature, all monster films are about chaos intruding upon the world of order. Sometimes this chaos is caused by forces external to humanity (as with alien invaders), and sometimes it’s caused by human monsters (as with serial killers). Sometimes the chaos is visited upon the innocent (making the story a tragedy, or an example of when bad things happen to good people), and sometimes it falls upon the wicked (making it a morality tale, or an example of when bad people get their comeuppance). Either way, it all boils down to the eternal struggle between order and chaos, light and darkness, creation and annihilation.

You’re probably wondering why a minister would take such a serious interest in this kind of subject matter. (After all, aren’t religious people supposed to think that monster movies are “sick” at best or “satanic” at worst?) The truth is, I think monster tales are the oldest kind of story known to humankind. Sure, epic adventures and steamy romances have been with us a long time too, but the one emotion our earliest ancestors were probably most familiar with was fear.

Consider what John Goodman says in Joe Dante’s Matinee (1993):

A zillion years ago, a guy’s living in a cave. He goes out one day, Bam! He gets chased by a mammoth. Now he’s scared to death, but he gets away. And when it’s all over with, he feels great [. . .] So he goes home, back to the cave, the first thing he does, [. . .] he does a drawing of the mammoth. And he thinks, “People are coming to see this. Let’s make it good. Let’s make the teeth real long, and the eyes real mean.” Boom! The first monster movie.

When you think about it, fear has motivated people to do many things. It motivated our ancient ancestors to band together, hunt for food, develop agriculture, and establish laws to prevent themselves from killing each other. It also motivated them to tell stories, to put their faith in higher powers, to repel misfortune with charms and magic, and to hope for a better life in the great hereafter. In short, fear is just about the mother of everything that’s included in human civilization, including religion.

Monster films are magical

There’s even an element of the monstrous in religion itself. The theme of chaos intruding upon order appears in every religious mythology. Every pantheon of gods must contend with at least one horrific monstrosity that wants to destroy us all:

  • In the Coffin Texts (dating to circa the 20th century BCE), Set is and will always be defeating the monster Apep.
  • In the Babylonian Enuma Elish (dating to the 7th century BCE), the god Marduk slays the dragon Tiamat and creates the cosmos from her corpse.
  • In Hesiod’s Theogony (dating to the 7th century BCE), the Olympian gods defeat the gigantic Titans and bury them within the earth.
  • In Psalm 74 (dating to 586 BCE), Yahweh slays Leviathan and feeds it to his saints at the end of time.
  • In Revelation 20 (dating to 81–96 CE), Christ defeats Satan and Antichrist, casting them both into a lake of fire.
  • In the Bundahishn (dating to the 9th century CE), Ahura Mazda destroys the monster Ahriman and rehabilitates the damned.
  • In the Poetic Edda (dating to the 13th century CE), the Aesir and Vanir will kill and be killed by the frost giants of old.

Every monster film echoes one or more of these combat myths on some basic level. Even in The Silence of the Lambs (1991), the character of Jame Gumb or “Buffalo Bill” is really just another Tiamat or Ahriman, and Clarice Starling is the stand-in for Marduk or Ahura Mazda. The characters and circumstances are quite different, but the story is essentially the same, and it’s the oldest story in the world.

Many faiths also have some horrific notion of what might happen if people just stopped practicing religion altogether. The gods might abandon us; the dead might rise up to torment the living; the whole world might fall apart; and so on. Films like The Birds (1963) and The Mist (2007) may not seem to have anything to do with religion on the surface, but each depicts some stern, cosmic judgment against humanity for its collective sins. And the number of films that depict vengeance upon the living by the restless dead—such as Poltergeist (1982) and A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984)—is in the thousands. For these reasons, I think monster films are the finest medium for religious expression and interpretation, superior even to most overtly religious films. There is far more divinity and truth to be found in something like It Came from Outer Space (1953) than there is in, say, Kirk Cameron’s Saving Christmas (2014).

Now praise Set, and pass the remote!

Remote for your Television SET

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The Underworld

On the ancient Egyptian concept of Duat, the “Underworld” or “Other Side.”

 

Each religion has its concept of the Underworld; but what is this dark and mysterious plane, exactly? In popular culture, it’s usually pictured as a dark, nightmarish world that exists underground, and which is filled with tormented ghosts and demons. In fact, this notion of the Underworld seems to have influenced the Christian idea of hell, except that only “bad” (i.e., non-Christian) people are thought to go there. In ancient Paganism, however, almost everyone was thought to go to the Underworld, save for heroic warriors and kings (who reigned with the gods in heavenly places like Valhalla). Going there had nothing to do with whether you were good or evil in life; it was basically a matter of social status. Important people were noticed by the gods and welcomed into their various heavens, while common working class folk were expected to eat mud, drink tears, and gnash their teeth down there in the darkness forever.

Or were they?

The ancients might not have been so rigid in their beliefs as the experts might think. Our information about this stuff is based on writings from the tombs of important kings and nobles. Common people usually didn’t know how to read or write, so there is very little for us to go on when it comes to assessing their opinions on eschatology. It’s only natural that kings and chieftains would think they’d get a better place in the afterlife than their subjects; but does this really mean the common people couldn’t expect to enjoy a happy afterlife at all? In many cultures, regular people would bury their ancestors beneath the floorboards of their homes. They would keep altars for these relatives and make votive offerings to them on a frequent basis. The deceased were even buried in a fetal position, with their faces turned to the West (the direction of the setting sun). This indicates a belief that even common people could expect a rebirth in the next world, despite the fact that they weren’t all-important monarchs with massive reputations or egos.

“Pharaoh

Pharaoh Tutankhamun’s Death Mask

The evidence available to us shows that the Egyptian version of the Underworld was much more favorable to the common person than many others. The Egyptians called it Duat, which means “Place Where the Sun is Born” according to Maria Betro’s Hieroglyphics: The Writings of Ancient Egypt (1996, Abbeville Press). Now why do you suppose they would refer to the Land of the Dead by such an optimistic-sounding name? Because it is where Ra, the Creator of the universe, crosses paths with Osiris each night to be reborn. As the sun god, Ra “dies” whenever they cross beneath the horizon, thereby passing into the realm of the invisible. While they are there, Ra has to be regenerated by Osiris, who was the first of the gods to die and rise again. Once this nocturnal meeting in Duat occurs, Ra begins to be reborn, a process that culminates at the break of dawn. So from the Egyptian perspective, the Underworld isn’t a place of death or decay, but of new energy and life. Duat is not just a destination for the past, but also a source of the yet-to-be.

There are some Kemetic reconstructionists who feel that Set’s role in the Osirian drama should never be celebrated; but prior to Osiris’ death, none of the gods knew what death was even like. Mortals would live and pass away upon the face of this earth, but did the gods care? Highly unlikely. It wasn’t until Set proved that they too can die (and that He can make it happen) that they started empathizing with our human fear of death. And just as Osiris spent his life traveling throughout the world, teaching people to plant crops, establish government, and stop eating each other like cannibals, so too would he implement similar reforms in Duat. Instead of just leaving everyone to wail and moan in darkness for all time, Osiris made it so the good-hearted will go to paradise and the evil-hearted will be destroyed (regardless of anyone’s station in life while they were still alive). If Set had never slain Osiris in the first place, none of this would ever have happened; so it is that good things sometimes need bad things to make them happen.

With Osiris, it is your heart that determines your afterlife, not your power or riches. Even loyalty to the god himself is not a factor, given that the “42 Negative Confessions” make no reference to accepting any particular doctrines or dogmas. The Egyptians expected to be judged for things like murder, rape, and stealing food that’s been offered to the gods, not for their theological opinions or beliefs. You don’t even have to worship Osiris to be welcomed into his Field of Reeds.

There is some confusion as to “where” Duat is, exactly. We used to think the Egyptians perceived it as being literally underground; but more recent discoveries show that the physical world and Duat were viewed as being two sides of the same coin. The universe is like a giant body, and the world of matter (including everything in outer space) is just the visible outer skin of that body, while Duat is the invisible flesh and bone beneath that skin. The hieroglyphic for Duat resembles a five-pointed asterisk in a circle. The asterisk itself is the hieroglyphic for seba or “star,” and the circle represents rebirth. The star is also “hidden” within the circle, so as to become “invisible.” But doesn’t this image also make you think of something else in particular? I think it looks like it could be a possible origin for the pentagram.

“The

Duat is not just one place, but a continuum filled with myriad worlds. Osiris has the Field of Reeds, an agrarian paradise filled with eternal booze and lovemaking, while Ra has the Solar Barque, which resembles a phosphorescent cruise ship. Hathor has a Sycamore Tree where she offers refreshments to the deceased, and Set of course has His Secret Place “behind” the Big Dipper. But before any soul can proceed to either of these various realms, it must undergo a procedure called the Weighing of the Heart, wherein its collective deeds (symbolized as their “heart”) are measured against the whole of Ma’at (the cosmic balance, symbolized as an ostrich feather). If the heart is heavier than the feather, the soul is fed to the daemon Ammut, whereupon it ceases to exist for all time. If this happens, the spirit of the deceased—which is separate from their soul—is left to linger on this earth as a ghost (or even a qlipha). But if the soul is more or less in good standing with Ma’at, it is re-united with its spirit and transfigured to become an akh (“shining one”). Then the departed is free to roam any place in Duat the gods might permit them to visit.

A local cemetery in my neighborhood

There are certain places where the barrier between us and Duat seems especially thin. Cemeteries and tombs are the most immediate examples, but I would also cite hospital maternity wards, where new lives are constantly being born. (Remember, Duat is the Land of the Yet-To-Be as much as it is the Land of What-Used-To-Be.) There are also certain times when Duat becomes more accessible, but these are not identical across the globe. For example, the veil grows thinnest in Egypt during holidays like the Wag Festival, which traditionally occurs sometime in August or September; but here in North America, the veil is thinnest at Hallowtide. Then again, if you live in the southern hemisphere, the cross-quarter days will fall on different dates due to the seasons being reversed. So the point of transition between our surface reality and Duat can vary based on your geographical location and the time of year.

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Set is a Savior, Not a Devil

Tackling the anti-Setian trope that Set is the “god of evil” or “Egyptian devil.”

 

In popular culture, Set is usually cast as the Egyptian “god of evil,” a kind of “proto-Satan.” You see it in the Conan stories, Doctor Who, the Marvel Universe, Vampire: The Masquerade, and most recently in the 2017 Mummy reboot. But popular culture’s version of Set is not the Set who was actually worshiped in ancient Egypt. The Set I know is more of an antihero who does things that none of His fellow gods really want to do, but which have to be done anyway. His job is to make sure there’s always some kind of forward movement happening throughout every level of existence. Sometimes this means making trouble for the other gods (as when Set slays Osiris or challenges Horus), and sometimes it means saving them from horrific chaos monsters (as when Set saves Ra from Apep each night).

The evil Serpent, arch-enemy of all gods and creatures

Apep is the true adversary in Egyptian mythology. The hieroglyphic for its name is a snake, its body looped in multiple coils, its flesh pierced with butcher knives. This thing is much more like Satan than Set is, though it’s actually far worse. Satan’s just an angel at the end of the day; Jesus or Allah is destined to kick his hiney at the end of time, and he can only do whatever his Maker allows him to do (which says something about his Maker). Apep is not a being created or controlled by any god, but something more like a black hole, a vapid non-entity that just wants to eat everything. And since it isn’t a created being to begin with, it can never be completely defeated or destroyed. It can be repelled or execrated in various ways, but it always comes back. Despite its ultimate immortality, Apep is not a god, but more of an anti-god. It was never worshiped in Egyptian religion, but was only worshiped against. Set plays a major role in preventing it from ending the world each night, and that’s what I love most about Him.Set: Champion of Ra, Savior of the Sun

Apep tries to murder the world by swallowing Ra, the sun god. We might be tempted to ridicule the Egyptians for thinking a giant snake was floating around out there in outer space, trying to eat our sun; but this assumes the story is meant to be taken literally. It’s also a disturbing metaphor about sleep, in which Ra “dies” each night and travels through the Netherworld to be “reborn” at dawn. As we sail through the unconscious terrain of sleep, we can encounter all kinds of frightening phenomena in the form of nightmares. Apep is the stuff nightmares are made of, and Set is the stuff nightmares are afraid of. Therefore, the theme of Ra’s salvation by Set is more like the oldest known version of “If I should die before I wake.” It represents the hope that we will all wake up again after going to sleep, even when we enter the sleep of death.

Set rescues the dawn

One of my most important rituals is what’s called an execration spell. I create things to represent my deepest, darkest problems; I invoke Apep into those objects; then I invoke Set into myself and smash, slice, or burn the objects in His name. I actually become the Power that my nightmares are afraid of, and I do to them what they would do to me. This procedure doesn’t solve all of my problems; indeed, anyone who expects magic to solve all their problems is gravely mistaken. But it does help me cope with them more productively. Externalizing one’s inner demons and symbolically destroying them can be very therapeutic, and Set is an excellent facilitator for such magic. If Big Red is “Satanic” when it’s between Him and Osiris and/or Horus, then He’s really quite Christian when it’s between Him and Apep.

Set and the archangel Michael

Left: Set smiting Apep. Right: The archangel Michael smiting Satan. See the resemblance?

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