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Too Many Mummies!

Why I enjoy certain “killer mummy” movies, and why I usually roll my eyes at the rest of this subgenre.

 

If there’s one thing I’ve always enjoyed doing since birth, it’s watching monster movies. It all started with the old black-and-white ones with guys like Boris Karloff, Bela Lugosi, and Lon Chaney, Jr. When I was seven or eight years old, there was a local UHF TV station that used to broadcast many of these flicks on weekend afternoons or late at night. This is how I remember seeing things like King Kong (1933), Godzilla (1954), and Them! (1954) for the very first time. Most of these movies didn’t scare me that much (though I remember being absolutely traumatized by The Thing From Another World), but I loved them anyway, especially the Universal monster movies. And naturally, Karl Freund’s The Mummy (1932) is the one selection from that particular canon that made the greatest impression on me.

An ancient Egyptian priest named Imhotep (played by Boris Karloff) has a forbidden crush on the princess Ankh-es-en-Amon, who is a virgin priestess of the goddess Isis. When Ankh-es-en-Amon dies an untimely death, Imhotep steals the legendary Scroll of Thoth to resurrect her corpse. The Pharaoh’s guards apprehend him and rip out his tongue; then they bury him alive, all as punishment for his blasphemy. To add insult to injury, Imhotep’s fellow priests scratch out all the hieroglyphic spells inside his coffin that are meant to procure a safe journey to the Otherworld for its occupant, thereby condemning his soul. Thousands of years later, some European archaeologists dig up Imhotep’s tomb and accidentally resurrect him with the Scroll of Thoth. One of them sees the old boy walking around, and the poor dumbass goes stark raving mad. Then the mummy disappears, snatching the Scroll on its way out.

Years later, Sir Joseph Whemple (the European who hasn’t gone crackers) returns to Egypt with his son Frank to launch a new expedition. That’s when a guy calling himself “Ardath Bey” (an anagram of “Death by Ra”) shows up. Bey appears to be the oldest (and dustiest) Shriner walking the Middle East, and he walks around like he’s got a Louisville slugger rammed up between his ass cheeks. He also has an incredible knack for knowing exactly where the archaeologists should dig to find more treasure. Thanks to Bey, the archaeologists discover the tomb of Princess Ankh-es-en-Amon—and that’s when a European lady named Helen Grosvenor (played by Zita Johann) starts sleepwalking through traffic in the middle of Cairo. Thinking Helen might be the reincarnation of his old lady (literally), Imhotep—er, I mean Ardath Bey—decides to put the wammy on her so he can kill her, mummify her, and resurrect her corpse.

Of course, Helen doesn’t exactly relish the thought of becoming a drooling, undead trophy wife. So Imhotep does what any sensible star-crossed sorcerer would do; he kidnaps her, hypnotizes her with his magic, and forces her to go along with what he wants. But just before he’s able to claim his final victory, Helen feels a sudden inspiration to pray to Isis, whose statue springs to life and electrocutes Imhotep with magic lightning. At that point, the world’s oldest (and dustiest) Shriner reverts back to the walking, talking mummy he really is, and he promptly disintegrates into a pile of bones. Then Helen goes home and presumably marries her other suitor, the archaeologist’s son. (Actually, Helen simply exchanges one kind of “zombification” for another. Considering how Frank treats her while he’s keeping her safe from Imhotep, it seems like she’s doomed to become someone’s zombie trophy wife sooner or later.)

The Mummy was inspired by on the opening of Pharaoh Tutankhamen’s tomb in 1922 by the archaeologist, Howard Carter. There was a lot of media hype back then about Carter and his colleagues bringing down a so-called “Curse of the Pharaohs” for committing this “sacrilege.” Everyone who had a hand in opening the tomb was supposed to die a strange and mysterious death. (Even Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, the famous creator of Sherlock Holmes, believed there was some kind of truth to this curse.) But it actually would have been rude of Tutankhamen to unleash such a curse, given that Carter’s the one who gave the poor kid his biggest break. Tutankhamen was hardly an afterthought in Egyptian history during his woefully short life; it wasn’t until Carter found him that he became the most famous Pharaoh of all. Even people who’ve never read a single Egyptology book know who “King Tut” is, and it’s all thanks to Carter. I’ve always figured Tutankhamen would be mighty grateful to Carter for this.

And did you know there was actually a real, historical Imhotep? He wasn’t anything like Boris Karloff’s character; he is actually the oldest known physician in history. He wrote one of the earliest medical treatises that offered purely scientific (and not magical) treatments for illnesses (predating the Greek physician Hippocrates by over 2,000 years). He was also the master architect and engineer who designed the Pyramid of Djoser (otherwise known as “the Step Pyramid”). Far from being cursed for any blasphemy, Imhotep was something more like a saint who had achieved great enlightenment and holiness during his earthly life, and who could intercede as a spirit on behalf of the living. Such was the real Imhotep’s popularity that he eventually gained his own religious following and was worshiped as the “Son of Thoth” (the god of wisdom, who was Imhotep’s tutelary deity). My guess is, the makers of The Mummy wanted an authentically Egyptian-sounding name for their film’s antagonist, and they most likely chose “Imhotep” without knowing anything about the historical figure to whom it belongs.

The thing that really sets The Mummy apart from other films of the period is the way in which its titular monster is defeated. Most gothic horror movie monsters—vampires, werewolves, Frankenstein monsters—are easily defeated with Christian religious symbols, or with purely practical weapons like fire. Imhotep is impervious to all of these things, and it is neither Jesus Christ nor Professor Van Helsing (nor even The Mummy‘s own perpetually dumbstruck “hero”) who saves Helen at the end. Her savior is a goddess who’s assumed by the (male) archaeologists in the film to have been a mere superstition, but who’s shown to be real and benevolent enough to answer an innocent woman’s desperate plea. The Mummy is pro-Pagan in its insistence that the ancient Egyptian religion is true and continues to have power and currency today. The fact that most people no longer believe in the Egyptian gods has absolutely nothing to do with it, and all of the characters are forced to accept these facts by the end of the film.

There’s only one other character who understands these things from the start, and that’s Dr. Mueller (played by Edward Van Sloan). Mueller is Helen’s psychiatrist, but he’s also an esotericist who happens to put his faith in the Egyptian religion. He’s the one who insists that everyone should be wearing an amulet of Isis for protection (and he turns out to be right). He also warns the archaeologists that they shouldn’t be meddling around with the Scroll of Thoth, and that they should just torch it in a fireplace somewhere. Not only does he seem to know that using the Scroll is a bad idea, but he specifically uses the word “sacrilege.” I’m sure the filmmakers never put this much thought into it, but I bet Mueller is a member of something like the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn or the Ordo Templi Orientis—some European occult initiatory order that claims to be older than it really is, and which is full of bored social elites who claim to know more about Egypt than they really do. Except in this case, Mueller happens to know just enough to help keep some of the other characters alive, which is curiously pro-Egyptian for a movie from this era.

Of course, the film isn’t without criticism. One complaint I often hear is that it’s basically the same movie as 1931’s Dracula, but with Egyptian rather than Transylvanian window dressings. This is definitely true; the idea of an undead immortal man lusting after a mortal woman also appears in Dracula, and Dr. Mueller and Frank Whemple are both played by actors who also appeared in nearly identical roles in the Lugosi film (as Professor Van Helsing and Jonathan Harker, respectively). The opening title sequence even uses the exact same music that was used for Dracula (the “Swan Theme” from the second act of Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake). But despite all of this, I feel The Mummy is superior to Dracula in almost every way. It has the benefit of being made after Hollywood had a chance to learn from making “talkies” for a while. Dracula has always seemed very stilted and boring to me, and I think it’s because they were only just starting to film with sound when it was being made. It’s also more faithful to Hamilton Deane’s 1924 stage play than it is the original Bram Stoker novel, which means it’s a fucking terrible adaptation. At least The Mummy doesn’t claim to be based on a book and then do a fantastically shitty job of adapting it.

The Mummy was followed in the 1940s by a string of so-called “sequels” (starting with The Mummy’s Hand in 1940) that have nothing to do with the original film’s characters or plot. They’re also not nearly as intelligent and much more racist. They follow a mummy named Kharis, who’s less of a savvy sorcerer like Imhotep and more of a stumbling, demented death machine. He’s sent by the ancient priesthood of Karnak to kill some archaeologists for desecrating the tomb of a princess, and he’s controlled by the priests with (ahem) petrified tea leaves. While the 1932 original depicts Egyptian magic as a morally neutral power that can be used to help or hinder, the 1940s films treat it as a bizarre and degenerative cult that can only bring savage violence and death. (Most insultingly, the priests of Karnak always end up falling in lust with some white woman and trying to rape her, which always leads to the priest’s demise.)

Thankfully, the story of Kharis was revisited in more thought-provoking terms in the 1959 remake by Hammer Studios, called simply The Mummy and starring Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee. Thanks partly to a great script by Jimmy Sangster and a terrific performance by George Pastell as Mehemet Bey (the priest of Karnak in this version), Hammer’s The Mummy casts its Egyptian characters in a somewhat more sympathetic light. It still views its own subject matter through a racist and colonialist lens, but at least Mehemet Bey is given a chance to articulate his position to the white protagonists, and Pastell really sells it. I can totally see how the systemic exploitation of his culture and religion would radicalize him to kill in the name of Karnak, regardless of the fact that Karnak is actually a city in Egypt and not a god. (I actually enjoy this flaw in the film, because it means none of the violence is being committed in the name of any deity that’s worshiped in any real life religion.) It’s also nice to see a version of the story that doesn’t have the priest of Karnak getting all rapey with the heroine and sabotaging himself in the end.

The Hammer Mummy is a close contender for “Greatest Movie Called The Mummy Ever Made” in my Setian scriptural canon, but the Universal original wins this category for the following reasons:

  • The Universal original is pro-Egyptian and has the good guys getting their asses saved by an Egyptian goddess; the Hammer version, despite having a sympathetic villain, still has an uncomfortably xenophobic message of “Anything that isn’t White Anglo-Saxon Protestantism is evil black magic and devil worship.”
  • While Mehemet Bey keeps his cool right up until the end, the Hammer version still has someone getting rapey with the female lead and thereby foiling Mehemet’s plot; in this case, it’s his own damn mummy Kharis (played by Christopher Lee), who I guess just wants to prove you’re never too old to sow your oats.

There’s been a truckload of other “killer mummy” movies since the Hammer Mummy, but most of them just repeat the same old premise from the Karloff original: some dead guy from Egypt rises from the grave with the worst case of morning wood ever, and he stops at nothing to claim the current reincarnation of his ancient sweetheart. Considering the complexity of Egyptian mythology and its huge cast of characters, it’s never made sense to me why Hollywood keeps circling back to this particular trope. There are so many other ideas from Egypt that could be adapted into much more interesting stories, such as the belief in kas (invisible doppelgangers that are supposed to follow us around throughout our lives), or the story of the Destruction of Humankind (in which humans are almost completely wiped out by the lion goddess Sekhmet), or the idea that pictures and drawings are actually windows into alternate universes. There’s more than enough material in Egyptian literature to inform several long-lasting movie franchises, but audiences just want to see scantily-clad women being fondled by dudes wrapped in Charmin I guess.

Okay, so the 1999 version of The Mummy handles this trope a little differently. Yes, the evil mummy wants to bring back his dead lover; but at least here, the dead lover and the living heroine are two different characters. (The mummy still has to kill the heroine to bring back his ancient lover, though, so I guess it’s not that different after all. Also, the heroine turns out to be the reincarnation of another Egyptian princess in the 2001 sequel, The Mummy Returns. Doesn’t anyone ever get tired of writing this crap?) But one thing that does work to the 1999 film’s favor is the fact that it frames itself not as a gothic horror movie, but as an epic adventure yarn. It bears much greater resemblance to the Indiana Jones movies than to either of its own titular predecessors. The performances from Brendan Frasier, Rachel Weisz, and Arnold Vosloo are also quite enjoyable, and I like that the film has its heroes using Egyptian mysticism to defeat the villain. (Reading a spell from the Book of Amun-Ra is not quite as impressive as having a goddess show up to personally rescue you from the monster, but I digress.) If you can look past the horrible computer graphics that are in this movie (and mind you, this is a 1990s movie, so its digital effects are craptastic in that special way that only 1990s CG could give us), you could do a whole lot worse.

Which brings us to the latest Mummy reboot, the 2017 version starring Tom Cruise. Sweet Set O Mighty, I don’t even know where to begin with this one. Okay, so we have an Egyptian sorceress who’s mummified alive for trying to take the Pharaoh’s throne. We have Tom Cruise digging up her coffin in contemporary Iraq (?) after an airstrike. We have Tom’s pal getting killed and showing up as a ghost that only Tom can see (probably because he got confused and thought they were making An American Werewolf in London). And we have Russel Crowe showing up as Dr. Jekyll/Mr. Hyde (yes, from the Robert Louis Stevenson novel), who has somehow become the leader of a secret society that knows everything there is to know about the mummy. I appreciate that they made this mummy a chick (and I won’t lie, Sofia Boutella looks fucking hot wrapped in Charmin like that), and I’m especially grateful that the “ancient lovers” theme was completely removed. Yet the film makes other unforgivable mistakes, and its absolute worst offense is the sheer number of aimless plot points that are clearly meant to be resolved in future movies. It’s one thing to do this when you have a clear vision of how everything’s going to tie together in the end; but the 2017 Mummy is not a finished product that can stand or be judged on its own merits. It amounts to little more than a 110-minute long preview of coming attractions (which we will never get to see).

But that isn’t what upsets me most about the 2017 Mummy. I can forgive movies for all kinds of cinematic sins, but I find it difficult to watch anything in which Set is used as a stand-in for the Christian devil. The mummy Ahmanet has acquired her supernatural powers as a result of making a “pact” with Set, and pretty much everything she does in the film is to serve Him. Naturally, this means Set is “evil” and wants to destroy the world. Would it kill Hollywood filmmakers to make a movie for once where Set isn’t written like He’s some two-dimensional cartoon villain? Even better, the film ends with Tom Cruise killing the mummy, inheriting her powers from her pact with Set, and becoming a superhero. If you don’t understand why I would be bothered by this, imagine for a moment that someone has made a film in which Jesus comes back to start a global holocaust, only to be defeated by Val Kilmer, who then promptly uses his new Jesus powers to become “Captain Nazareth.” Sounds pretty stupid, right?

Mummy

My Understanding of Magic

A brief explanation of my perspective on magic, what it is, how it works, and how it dovetails into my theological views.

 

My understanding of actual magic—not to be confused with mere illusionism or stage magic—hinges on the Egyptian concept of heka, which more accurately translates to mean “divine speech.” This refers not only to literal verbal communication, but also to the use of visual arts and ritualized performances to “activate the ka,” which might be compared to our Western construct of the “astral body.” Virtually any form of dramatic self-expression can be a work of magic within this context, provided that it arouses your spirit and directs it toward some kind of goal. This goal can be operative (to heal the sick, ward off negative energy, divine omens), initiatory (to reach a higher state of consciousness), or even devotional (to honor a deity or ancestor). For the ancient Egyptians, everything from casting love spells to invoking the Creator themself was a magical working that bridged the gap between this world and Duat, its spiritual counterpart. Indeed, magic is fundamental to all spirituality and religion, for even Christian worship services involve “activating the ka” (feeling “the Holy Spirit”), implementing “divine speech” (using key language from the Bible), and accomplishing some kind of goal (feeling close to Jesus).

Naturally, most people scoff at the idea of anyone believing in magic here in our contemporary times. But there is a difference between thinking magic is effective and thinking it is necessarily “supernatural.” I wholeheartedly believe in gods, ghosts, and other worlds, and many of the rites I’ve worked have wielded some truly eerie results. But I also accept that there are completely rational explanations for the things I’ve experienced, and I neither ask nor expect anyone else to forgo such conclusions. This is because I know magic can work regardless of whether the supernatural actually exists apart from the human imagination or not. If you invoke a blessing for someone, it might or might not have any effect on that person in the real world; but it will at least vent your desire for that person to be OK somehow, fulfilling a profound emotional need that all the logic in the world can never appease. So even if it’s all just a bunch of autohypnosis (which isn’t necessarily true, either), magic can still have efficacy and practical value today. Whether it works on objective reality or even on the subjective realities of others is completely secondary to whether it works on your own psyche and spirit. Its true purpose is to change and empower the user, not to directly affect literal changes on the physical world like in some epic fantasy movie.

These principles apply to my theology as well. I can’t claim to be absolutely 100% certain that Set (or any other deity) is really a sentient entity that actually hears my prayers, or that has ever directly intervened in my life to change it for the better. But apart from my personal belief that these things are true, I can at least be certain that if I had never uttered a single prayer to Set, I would never have met some of my closest loved ones; I would not have the family I now cherish; I would not have developed my current career; and I would never have hoisted myself from the cesspool of domestic abuse in which I was raised. None of this proves that Set is objectively real by any means, but it does prove that His influence in my life is strong enough for it not to matter whether He is or isn’t. And to this extent at least, He and the other divinities I’ve encountered are all quite real enough for my purposes. Whatever the gods actually are or however they are to be explained, they are certainly effective, just as magic can be effective whether it is truly “paranormal” or not. So I will just go right ahead and keep praising Big Red until the cows come home!

Inevitably, we must address the issue of magical ethics. The same principle behind the blessing spell I described above will also empower a hex or a death curse to work in much the same way (i.e., on the “sender,” not necessarily the “recipient”). Many Pagans warn that doing this is “unethical” and will unleash terrible consequences upon the user(s), no matter how much the intended victim(s) might deserve whatever is wished upon them. I have even heard someone tell rape survivors they have no business casting hexes on the men who assaulted them, for fear of violating some lofty cosmic law.

This is all bullshit.

Burning effigies and sticking pins into dolls are perfectly healthy ways of vindicating yourself emotionally without actually harming anyone—especially if we’re talking about an injustice as heinous as rape. If the helpless can’t use magic to win some kind of control back over their lives, then what fucking good is it? The true concern here is not whether hexing or cursing violates any external standard, but whether it violates your own conscience. Let’s say you do cast that death curse on your tormentor, and he actually dies that painful, humiliating death you wished upon him. Would this “coincidence” spook you and make you feel guilty? If so, that guilt might eat you up inside, causing your curse to backfire. But if you are certain your enemy’s synchronous destruction in reality would only enhance your well-being, I see no reason you should not enjoy yourself by destroying them symbolically and nonviolently in a spell. Doing so is always preferable to actually harming that person in real life, and you may even find that it alleviates your desire to harm them, helping you re-focus your energy on more productive goals.

Some people describe such procedures as “black,” “dark,” or “left-handed” magic, but this too is bullshit. You don’t have to devote yourself to a dark god to cast a hex whenever you might need to, and you also don’t have to curse people all the time to worship a dark god. Setians enjoy the additional benefit of execration rituals, which work in much the same way, but which target non-human advarsaries like the qliphoth or even the Chaos Serpent instead. Nine times out of ten, a good execration will help you cast out that negative energy better than any death curse would. Nevertheless, there are situations in which a curse might be exactly what you need; so while the option of magically destroying your enemies should never be taken lightly, there is no sense in completely ruling it out either. Furthermore, the term “black magic” is a colonial racist inference to African magical traditions, and “dark magic” lacks any room for nuance. (Is it “dark” to invoke Set the nocturnal storm god in a blessing, or to invoke Sekhmet the fiery solar goddess in a curse?) As for the “left-hand path,” this is a Tantric term for heterodox ritual practices, and it is rendered somewhat meaningless when removed from its original context. (Is it “left-handed” to praise Lucifer in a room full of Satanists?) I prefer to describe hexes, curses, and other such procedures as destructive magic and leave it at that, without assigning any color- or usability-coded value judgments to the matter.

Mind you, there are many “LHPers” (for lack of a better shorthand term) who enjoy my work, and I am very fond of those I know personally. I also have mad respect for writers like Kenneth GrantMichael Aquino, and Don Webb, each of whom has been a major inspiration to me personally. So it is not a matter of wanting to distance myself from LHP culture at all. It’s just that I deviate from most LHP ideologies I know about, which all seem to emphasize worshiping the self over any external deity. I believe everyone is really a living demigod, so the idea of worshiping yourself actually makes perfect sense to me; but there is no reason a polytheist can’t also revere other divinities in addition to their own. Yet I have found that speaking of devotionalism in LHP circles can stir up just as much controversy as discussing hexes can in Wiccan circles, and for reasons that are equally small-minded. I worship and pray to Set as if He were a real sentient being (again, regardless of whatever He might actually be in objective reality, which is irrelevant). If being a devotional polytheist is enough to disqualify me from fitting beneath the LHP umbrella, then so be it—but I’ll thank you not to insult me by labeling me as “right-hand path” (the Tantric term for “orthodox” practices), since I do not have a single “orthodox” bone in my entire body.

Some writers argue that “magic” should be limited to purely operative and/or initiatory spiritual practices, and that devotional rites are more properly consigned to the less interesting category of “religion.” But even stargazing, lifting weights, or walking a dog can be just as magical or “spirit-activating” as casting a spell to heal your friends, attract a mate, or call down your Holy Guardian Angel. So how can anyone truly legislate what is or isn’t “magical” for others? All spiritual practices are magic of one kind or another, from the obscure Rite of the Bornless One to the common Sunday Mass; so there is no need for anyone to poo-poo other people’s preferences here. Maybe you’re the kind of person who doesn’t care about religion and who only cares about astrology or Tarot reading. Or maybe you’re the kind of person who doesn’t care about fortune telling, and who just wants to pray to some ancient fertility goddess. Either way is enough to justify calling yourself a witch (or the cultural variant of your choice).

I’ve engaged in operative and initiatory projects over the years; I’ve worked spells, gone on vision quests, blessed people’s homes, execrated negative energy, etc. But the bulk of my craft has always been devotional in nature. There is nothing more magical to me than invoking Set at the shore of Lake Superior, out among the trees and the bears, with the Big Dipper twinkling in the sky above and the waters below, and for no other reason than just to enjoy Big Red’s company.

The Egyptian hieroglyphic for heka (“activating the ka”).

Set’s Sacred Critters

A discussion of the animals that are sacred to Set—including donkeys, pigs, hippos, oryx, and elephantfish.

 

As with most other Egyptian gods, certain animals are considered sacred to Set. First and foremost is the mysterious creature that the Egyptians called the Sha.

The holy Sha, sacred to Set

The Sha Animal

This little fella—which is otherwise known as the “Set Animal” or “Typhonian Beast”—is one of history’s greatest cryptids. It resembles a red-haired greyhound with rabbit ears, a long curved snout, and a forked tail. Egyptologists are divided as to whether this animal actually existed and went extinct, or if it’s just a mythical creature the Egyptians created from bits and pieces of different animals (like a dragon, griffin, or phoenix). Some authors have theorized that it may be a stylized hyena, jackal, aardvark, or fox. It might actually be a fennec fox, which looks like this in real life:

The Fennec Fox

The Fennec Fox (From Pixabay.com)

Fennec foxes are nocturnal, and they’re native to the Sahara Desert in Northern Africa. As you can see, this little guy has the biggest ears you’ll ever find on any member of the Canidae family, and he even has reddish-orange hair. Fennec foxes are also very social animals, they mate for life, and they can live for up to 14 years in captivity. Unfortunately, they are often hunted by indigenous African tribes. They don’t cause any direct harm to humans (like attacking people or livestock), but their fur is highly prized. It hasn’t been definitively proven that the Sha is really a fennec fox by any means, but considering the shape of the Sha’s body in Egyptian religious art, I think this is the most likely possibility.

Later on, in Greco-Roman times, Set was more often drawn as a donkey-headed man, and donkeys are probably my favorite Setian beasties. Conventional wisdom assumes that a donkey’s stubbornness is due to stupidity (which is why the word “jackass” later became a derogatory term for people who act like imbeciles), but it’s actually because they’re very wise and cautious. It’s extremely difficult to force or frighten them into doing anything they perceive to be dangerous, and you must earn a donkey’s trust before you can convince it to work with you. Donkeys are so resistant to being bullied, in fact, that farmers will often keep them stabled with horses to keep the horses from spooking so easily. Other animals just seem to feel better when there’s a donkey around, which makes perfect sense to me. What better totem animal to represent the mighty Red Lord than a floppy-eared underdog that refuses to be bossed around (and that’ll crush your skull with its hind legs if you even dare to try)? Not to mention that donkeys are really very trusty companions and workers once you get to know them (and once they get to know you).

Donkeys

The Donkey (From Pixabay.com)

Pigs are also sacred to Set, and this includes all pigs (from Miss Piggy to those big Razorbacks that gore people to death in the Australian Outback with their tusks). Big Red takes the form of a black boar when He blinds one of Horus’ eyes in Egyptian mythology, which is just one reason why pigs are so often considered “unclean” in some faiths today. Other reasons relate to religious dietary laws and the fact that pigs are genetically closer to humans than any other animal. In Judaism and Islam, animals must have split hooves and chew their cud to be considered kosher or halal, and while pigs have split hooves, they don’t chew their cud. At the same time, pig flesh bears the closest resemblance to human flesh (i.e., “the long pork”) in the entire animal kingdom, as evidenced by the fact that pig carcasses are so often used by crime scene investigation units when they re-create crime scenes. In light of this resemblance, some ancient cultures probably thought that eating pork was much too close to cannibalism for comfort.

Pig

The Pig (From Pixabay.com)

Some Egyptologists have theorized that the Sha isn’t really a canid at all, but some kind of feral hog. (P. E. Newberry once claimed that some feral hogs have greyhound-shaped bodies, but I have yet to see anything like this for myself.) I’m skeptical of this interpretation, but I do think the Sha’s tail and curved snout are similar to those of a wild boar. In any case, perhaps the connection between Set and pigs is what inspired the creators of the Legend of Zelda video games to give the evil sorcerer Ganon a boar’s head.

In one myth, Set takes the form of a hippopotamus while battling Horus. Hippos are semi-aquatic, spending most of their time in water and only walking on land at dusk. They’re also the toughest and most dangerous herbivores on Earth. Male hippos are especially aggressive and were highly feared by the Egyptians for their tendency to attack people without provocation. They were revered by Zulu warriors for this same quality, and were considered braver and more difficult to kill than lions.

Hippopotamus

The Hippopotamus (From Pixabay.com)

If you’ve ever seen a baby hippo, you’ll know it’s just about the cutest thing in the entire world…and you’ll wonder how such a cute little thing could possibly grow up to become one of the world’s deadliest creatures. One of my least favorite things about ancient Egypt is that the Temple of Horus at Edfu includes an engraving of Horus spearing a baby hippopotamus. The image represents Horus defeating Set in one of their many battles, so I know it shouldn’t be taken literally. But I can’t help but wonder if it doesn’t also represent an actual ritual in which a priest of Horus might have slaughtered a captured baby hippopotamus as a way of sticking it to Big Red (which would be shitty).

Then there’s the oryx, which is a type of African antelope. Big Red was sometimes called “the White Oryx” and was also identified with antelope in general (perhaps as a result of being worshiped by desert-dwelling hunter-gatherer societies). The funny thing is, oryx, pigs, and hippopotamuses are all members of the same order, Artiodactyla, which includes all of the even-toed or “cloven-hoofed” ungulates (e.g., goats, sheep, deer, giraffe, etc.). It is no accident that cloven hooves were later identified with the Christian devil, who was identified with both Set and the oryx by the Coptic Church. It’s bizarre to me that horned, cloven-hoofed critters like the oryx and the goat would come to be considered “satanic” by such people, since they’re herbivores that pose absolutely no threat to human beings.

Oryx

The Oryx (From Pixabay.com)

Finally, Set is said to be rather fond of fish. When He drowns and dismembers Osiris in Egyptian mythology, He feeds the god’s phallus to a fish. No one’s really sure what kind of fish this supposedly was, but some sources theorize that it’s a member of the Mormyridae or “elephantfish” family. They’re called “elephantfish” because their snouts resemble elephant trunks. In fact, you might say that the faces of these fish bear a striking resemblance to the sha animal:

Elephantfish

The Elephantfish (From Wikimedia Commons)

I think it’s pretty safe to assume that Set’s fish is from the Mormyridae family, for the Egyptians were nice enough to make statues of the fish, especially in a city called Per Medjed or Oxyrhynchus (a Greek name which means “Town of the Sharp-Snouted Fish”). For whatever reason, the fish that swallowed Osiris’ penis was especially beloved to the people of this city. This is especially interesting since Oxyrhynchus was located in what archaeologists call “Upper Egypt” (i.e., the southern and most desert-like half of the country, which was dedicated to the cult of Set in predynastic times). Their statues of Set’s fish show once and for all that the fish is definitely a Mormyrus of one kind or another.

It’s ironic that a barren desert god would be associated with an aquatic animal, but it makes perfect sense to me at least. If you’re accustomed to living in an arid desert wilderness, what would you expect heaven to be like? You’d probably imagine it to be a place where there’s never any shortage of water, like an oasis, a lake, or even an ocean. The fish, in turn, would be seen as a powerful symbol of hope. Interestingly, Oxyrhynchus was one of the first Egyptian cities to accept Christianity under the Coptic Church. (Numerous non-canonical Christian texts have been discovered there.) Early Christians used the Ichthys or “Jesus Fish” as their primary religious symbol long before they switched to using the crucifix, and perhaps this is something that attracted the people of Oxyrhynchus to Christianity.

The LV-426 Tradition

Some background on the unique Setian coven in which I became a priest.

 

There are three other Setians with whom I’ve been privileged to work some truly life-changing magic over the years. These individuals know who they are, but out of respect for their privacy, I will only identify them here as Blackwynthe Tonester, and Sister Bean. To walk with Set is a solitary path, even when you’re part of a group, and not everyone in my circle will always agree with each other on everything. But the point isn’t that we always believe or practice the same things. The point is that we are each drawn to Set in our own ways and for our own reasons; that we’ve crafted a number of effective rituals and spells together; and that we’ve all witnessed the same eerie results these procedures can yield. Years have passed since we first declared ourselves a coven back in 2003; we’re spread far apart from each other now, living in our own areas and focusing on our own priorities. But even if we never meet in person to hold another ritual together again, we will always be connected with each other somehow.

That “somehow” is Set.

In 2007, we started referring to our collected rites as the LV-426 Tradition for the following reasons:

  • The 1979 sci-fi/horror film Alien is a prime example of what we call “the monster film as mythos,” and we wanted our name to memorialize the film for this reason.
  • The Tonester and I were both living in the Bible Belt at the time, and Ripley’s struggle against the Alien was a perfect metaphor for how we felt about living there.
  • Being a couple of smartasses, we wanted a name that was far too cumbersome for repeated use in brief conversation. (Say “LV-426 Tradition” six times in the same paragraph to see what I mean!)

The Setians of the LV-426 Tradition

From left to right: The Tonester, Sister Bean, Yours Truly, and Blackwyn.

In case you’ve never seen it (and shame on you if you haven’t!), the original Alien is about these astronauts in the distant future who follow what seems to be a distress signal of unknown origin. They make their way to a desolate planet called “LV-426” in their star charts, where they find a crashed alien spaceship with a dead crew and a shit-ton of weird, leathery eggs for its cargo. One of these eggs hatches, unleashing a horrific beast that reproduces itself by raping one of the men (!). Due to a breach in protocol, the creature enters the next phase of its life cycle back on board the ship, and the movie then becomes a slasher flick in outer space. The last person standing is Ellen Ripley, played by Sigourney Weaver, who emerges from the chaos and the carnage to become the first female action movie hero.

1980's Ad in TV Guide for Alien (1979)

The Alien strongly resembles Apep, that timeless arch-nemesis of Set. Designed by the Swiss surrealist, H.R. Giger, its biology makes no sense. How can it see without any eyes? Why would anything evolve to have two mouths—one inside the other—when just one mouth is simpler? How can its blood be so corrosive that it will burn through any metal, but without being deadly to the creature itself?1 Nothing in nature can exist like that, and the same is true of Apep. It’s described as lacking any sensory organs—it has neither eyes nor ears—yet it’s somehow able to locate and paralyze its prey with a hypnotic gaze. It’s also described as “breathing by means of its own roar” and “living by means of its cries,” which means it doesn’t require any sustenance for its survival; it just eats things to make them suffer (Manassa, 2014). Both Apep and the Alien are monsters that can only exist in nightmares, that operate in total defiance of natural law, and that would be absolutely poisonous to any ecosystem in which they managed to thrive.

Ellen Ripley, on the other hand, is a perfect stand-in for the Red Lord. She is the outsider or “black sheep” among her crew, the only one who takes her job seriously, and a real stickler for protocol (even refusing to let Captain Dallas [Tom Skerritt] board their ship when she learns he has an infected crew member in tow). Compare this to the other female crew member, Lambert (played by Veronica Cartwright), who complains, screams, or cries helplessly throughout the film. Then there’s the fact that Ripley dresses and behaves like a man. One of Set’s many lovers is the Ugaritic goddess Anat, who is usually depicted in men’s clothes (Patai, 1990), and whom Set is said to find especially attractive for this reason. Given how much He enjoys smiting monsters like the xenomorph, and given how partial He is to androgynous ladies like Anat, it’s hard for me not to imagine Set cheering for Ripley from upon His throne behind the Great Bear. (Plus, going through so much trouble to save Jones the Cat must surely score Ripley some additional points with Bast, Ishtar, Sekhmet, and other like-minded goddesses of feline goodness.)2

Anat, an Ugaritic goddess

Anat, an Ugaritic goddess who is one of Set’s many consorts.

Alien is also filled with various references to sexual anatomy and the reproductive process. The ship’s computer is called “Mother”; the astronauts look like they’re being born when they awaken from their cryogenic sleep chambers; the tunnels of the derelict craft on LV-426 resemble giant fallopian tubes; and the xenomorph’s head is shaped like an erect penis (which always makes me think of someone being raped in reverse during the infamous “chestburster” scene).3 Ripley even has her final confrontation with the beast in her underwear,4 and she must also contend with “Mother,” which insists on keeping the Alien alive for future study (even at the cost of the astronauts’ lives). So a secondary conflict rages between Ripley and the computer, which cares more for the survival of the “child” than it does for the “parents.” This is especially intriguing given that Set is thought to cause abortions and miscarriages (te Velde, 1977). As His cinematic avatar, Ripley must further alienate herself from her society by “aborting” the gestating life form her superiors have deemed more important than herself (Cobbs, 1990).

H.R. Giger was obviously influenced by the New England horror writer, H.P. Lovecraft; but I’m fairly certain he was also inspired by a British occultist named Kenneth Grant. Once a disciple of the infamous Aleister Crowley, Grant was obsessed with what he called the “Tunnels of Set,” which are supposed to be these astral wormholes that loop back and forth between various alternate universes. He was the first occult author to suggest that H.P. Lovecraft was a “sleeping prophet,” and that monsters like Cthulhu and Nyarlathotep are real beings that actually exist in some other dimension. (He beat the Simon Necronomicon to this punch by at least a decade, if not longer.) Given this, I’m sure Grant’s ajna chakra or “third eye” probably exploded wide open if and when he ever got around to seeing Alien for himself. And if H.R. Giger wasn’t specifically thinking about the “Tunnels of Set” when he first envisioned the winding, cyclopean corridors of that ghost ship on LV-426, he sure as hell could have fooled me.

H.P. Lovecraft, Kenneth Grant, and H.R. Giger

From left to right: H.P. Lovecraft (1890–1937), Kenneth Grant (1924–2011), and H.R. Giger (1940–2014).

Though we tend to share Grant’s enthusiasm for the “many-worlds” interpretation of quantum mechanics, my coven mates and I have zero interest in contacting any of the horrific fauna that H.P. Lovecraft envisioned for his lurid tales. We instead emphasize execration, or the use of magic to repel negativity and misfortune from people’s lives. This is functionally similar in principle to casting a death curse on someone, save that the target of your spell is Apep, the true source of all evil, and not any human victim. As far as we’re concerned, walking with Set isn’t about getting chummy with Lovecraftian space monsters; it’s about ferociously defending the autonomy of all sentient beings.

The idea that we must be “ferocious” in this regard comes from when the Tonester and I lived in the Bible Belt during the early 2000s. We were constantly under siege from “Rapture-ready” teachers, classmates, employers, cops, and politicians. We couldn’t even go for prayer walks in the woods without being harassed by people who thought we were “worshiping the devil.” After a while, it began to feel as if we were actually trapped in some hostile wilderness, with a very real monster coming after us. That monster wasn’t an actual xenomorph, of course, but Apep; and instead of literally trying to eat us, it was trying to eat our hearts from within. But Set is merciful; He brought us together in that wretched place, against all odds, and He blessed us with each other’s company and support. Then we met Blackwyn and Sister Bean in Michigan a few years later, and the rest is history. Each of us is proof for the others of Set’s providence, and Alien is an excellent parable for our own private quests against the Serpent.

Training to be Ellen Ripley

But execrations are not the only staple of our practice; there’s also our weekly Sabbat ritual, which is observed on Friday nights. We enter a darkened room that has been prepared with an altar, an image of Set, and some red candles. We recite our standard invocation together, and then we take turns praying to Set informally, as if He were just a regular person in the room with us. Usually this means discussing our hopes and fears, our best and/or worst moments of the week, or something along those lines. When one person finishes their prayer, they turn to the next person in sequence (which is always to the left) and say, “If there is anything you wish to say to the Red Lord at this time, please feel free to do so.” And if the next person has nothing they wish to pray about, they keep silent so the next person can proceed. Once everyone has finished, we break out the beer, blast some heavy metal, and chat with each other into the wee hours, sometimes not adjourning until daybreak. The exchanges we’ve shared during these late night Sabbat talks are some of the most profound meditations I’ve ever experienced in my life.

Some other things we’ve done include a spell for protection during sleep, an astral pilgrimage technique, and a matrimonial ceremony that was used for my wedding in 2012 and for Sister Bean’s in 2015. There’s also an initiation ritual that’s used for inducting new members, but this procedure is known only to those who pass our vetting process and are invited to join. (Considering there have only been four of us since Set first struck me with His black lightning in 1997, you can imagine how often this happens.) Our liturgical calendar includes not only our weekly Sabbat but also Hallowtide (October 31–November 2), Walpurgisnacht (April 30), and Friday the Thirteenth (on which we celebrate Set as the catalyst for Osiris’ resurrection and Horus’ conception). Importantly, we have no leader or “high priest/ess”; each of us is fully qualified to administer our rites to anyone who might need them, and all of our group decisions (including whether to initiate any new brothers and/or sisters) are made by unanimous vote.

Set's Charge to LV-426 Clergy

Apart from the above, we Setians of the LV-426 Tradition may each entertain any additional beliefs or practices we like. Some of us revere other sacred figures along with Set, like Buddha, the Norse god Odin, or the Babylonian goddess Ishtar. Some of us even celebrate Christmas or Saint Patrick’s Day. Our eclecticism is rooted in Set’s New Kingdom role as an ambassador between the Egyptian gods and other pantheons. Just as He can roam between alternate realities and canoodle with alien divinities, so are we free to mix the old Kemetic wisdom with just about anything we find useful, from American colonial witch lore to Zoroastrian demonology. Some outsiders may find this permissiveness toward religious dogma repugnant, but we couldn’t care less; Big Red is the only justification we need.

It’s been a while since we last met as a coven to keep the Sabbat, execrate our inner demons on Walpurgisnacht, or offer up a feast of watermelon to Big Red on Friday the Thirteenth. I can’t speak to how often the others may or may not “keep up” with these practices nowadays (though I must admit it has been hard for me to do so consistently, myself), but none of us has ever been expected to make such a commitment anyway. It’s the fact that we even did these things at all—and the magic we shared when we did—that really matters. And there’s always the possibility that somewhere down the road, a fifth initiate of LV-426 might present him or herself to us, setting a whole new cycle of ritual work into motion. For now, all LV-426 alumni are off exploring other proverbial worlds, but always with Set’s Iron in our spines.

The LV-426 Sigil

The LV-426 Sigil

Notes

1 I’m well aware that in Ridley Scott’s prequels to this film—Prometheus (2012) and Alien: Covenant (2017)—it’s revealed that the xenomorphs did not evolve naturally, but were genetically engineered as a kind of biological warfare. This still doesn’t explain why their blood, which can burn through any damn metal you please, doesn’t just burn right through their own bodies as well.

2 Some viewers—including Big Steve King—complain that Ripley’s quest to save Jones the Cat is a “sexist interlude” that undermines her role as a feminist character (King, 1983). I’m a proud cat parent, and if I were in Ripley’s position, I’d risk everything to save my fur baby too. (Ten bucks says if Jones were a dog, nobody would be bitching about this.)

3 The “chestburster” scene is quite similar to the story of Set’s birth according to Plutarch (1970). He recounts that Set was not born at the normal time or in the normal fashion, but that He impatiently exploded forth from the belly of His mother, the sky goddess Nut. It’s tempting to think the screenwriter, Dan O’Bannon, might have encountered this story at some point while writing the script for Alien.

4 Some viewers—again, including Mr. King—complain that this final sequence “sexualizes” Ripley too much (King, 1983). I have to say that as a straight dude, this scene has never once made me think, “Ooooh, look at the naked chick!” Instead, it always makes me think about this one time I had to fumble around in my basement naked to get some clean clothes out of the dryer, only to be greeted by a huge spider that made me piss myself. In other words, it makes me identify with Ripley rather than objectify her, and I for one applaud Ridley Scott for framing the scene in that way.

H.R. Giger's Alien

References

Cobbs, J.L. (1990). Alien as an abortion parable. Literature / Film Quarterly, 18(3), 198–201. Retrieved on October 5, 2017.

King, S. (1983). Danse macabre (2nd edition). New York, NY: Berkley Books.

Manassa, C. (2014). Soundscapes in ancient Egyptian literature and religion. In E. Meyer-Dietrich (Ed.), Laut und leise: Der gebrauch von stimme und klang in historischen kulturen (pp. 147–172). Bielefield, Germany: Transcript Verlag.

Patai, R. (1990). The Hebrew goddess (3rd edition). Detroit, MI: Wayne State University Press.

Plutarch (1970). De Iside de Osiride. Cardiff, Wales: University of Wales.

te Velde, H. (1977). Seth, god of confusion: A study of His role in Egyptian mythology and religion. Leiden, Netherlands: E.J. Brill.

Setianism: A Brief Introduction

What I believe, and why I wrote this brochure.

 

 

Read the Brochure

I understand platforms like Facebook have to burden us with advertisements; after all, they can’t do everything they do without making some kind of revenue, right? But ever since I joined, I’ve received a staggering number of ads for hardline Catholic and evangelical Christian ministries. For example, just last year (in 2019):

  • Steven Kozak sent me a piece bemoaning the “post-Christian” times in which we live.
  • True Horizon sent me an article that attempts to prove atheism is really a “religion” (!).
  • The National Catholic Register sent me a warning against shopping at Walmart because it is supposedly selling “satanic merchandise” that can lead people to hear “satanic voices” in their heads.
  • Ray Comfort—the pastor who is best known for pleasuring a banana on his televangelism show, The Way of the Master—sent me a sermon about how “[through] God’s power, many homosexuals have been forgiven and changed” (i.e., brainwashed to hate themselves and think they are straight).
  • Catholic Action for Faith and Family sent me a request to “send my support” to Bishop Thomas Tobin, who publicly claimed that LGBTQ Pride events are “dangerous” for children to attend.
  • The “Alliance Defending Freedom” sent me an article imploring me to help them fight the Equality Act, which would add sexual orientation and gender identity as protected classes to existing laws that ban discrimination.
  • The Vatican sent me a new document they’ve been circulating to address the “educational crisis” that is being “caused” by transgender people.

Facebook seems to think I might find these things interesting because I am a legally ordained minister. You would think that with all their fancy algorithms and what-not, they would notice I am not a Christian and I am pro-LGBTQ. And while Facebook does provide us with the ability to hide or even report any ads we don’t appreciate, this feature is virtually useless. I receive a new ad for each one that I report or block (and often on the same day, in fact).

I’m not saying these people should be banned from Facebook or anything like that. I respect their First Amendment rights, even if I think the things they say and do are deplorable. But let’s get real here: if Pagans were to start employing these exact same recruitment techniques, these assholes would start screaming and throwing tantrums. To make things even more interesting, some Pagans feel it would be “unethical” to engage in this sort of outreach. Paganism is a personal thing, they argue, something that should never be marketed like a product. But Paganism does not develop in a vacuum; no one becomes a Pagan just because the idea occurs to them right out of thin air. They hear about it from someone else first, and if they are interested, they investigate the subject in greater detail; then they make a decision and act accordingly. None of us would be Pagan, not even me, if no one ever “advertised” Paganism at all. This notion that we’re just supposed to hide and wait for people to come to us is actually harmful because it holds us back as a community, it prevents us from enjoying the same protections other faiths enjoy, and it alienates up-and-coming Pagans who don’t even know they are Pagans yet. Clearly, a new way of doing things is needed.

With all of this in mind, I’ve designed a tract about my own particular branch of Paganism. I’ve decided to send copies of this tract to every single pastor, church, or other religious group that sends me any more of these solicitations on Facebook (and on every other social networking platform I might frequent). I’m also giving serious consideration to printing a ton of hard copies and sneaking them into church restrooms throughout my entire state (especially in red congressional districts). I understand most people will probably not even look at it, and that it is unlikely to affect most readers. This is irrelevant. I’m willing to bet there are people involved in each of these ministries who are secretly Pagan and who are just waiting for someone to light a great big Pagan bonfire in their hearts. Perhaps by sending this tract to these groups, some of these individuals might happen to see it and be awakened. It could just be a large waste of my time, but I’m sick and tired of the way things are, so I’m putting this out there in the hopes that perhaps it will do someone some good.

Here is a version of the pamphlet that should be shared electronically, as well as a version for printing hard copies. (Remember to print double-sided!)

I sincerely pray that my work here will benefit someone out there, even if it’s someone I will never know or meet. May Set straighten your bones with His holy iron, and may you be empowered to embrace yourself for the living demigod you truly are!

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

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.

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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