Strap on your dildo and cue the Norwegian black metal soundtrack! Today is Day 3 of the Epagomenal Days in the ancient Egyptian calendar, celebrating the birth of the most awesome, dynamic, powerful, ¡muy caliente! God in the history of human religious expression: the Great God Set!
Prior to leaving for work this morning, I prostrated myself before His shrine and brought Him the first of many offerings I’ll be presenting Him with today and tonight: watermelon slices that have been soaked in rum. It made me very happy to see, looking out the west-facing windows directly behind His shrine, that the thunderstorms that rolled in almost immediately after the clock struck midnight this morning gave the ground a good soaking. The air is charged with a pendulous electricity, heavy humidity, and hematite-colored cloud cover that tell me in no uncertain terms that the God of Storms isn’t done sporting in the skies for His birthday just yet. My senses are keen and my body is extraordinarily wired and inspired; whatever Set is of a mind to do today, I know I am attuned to it energetically. Bring on the tempests, Bull of Ombos! This is the season of roaring (the Sun is in Leo, after all), and today is going to be a great day!
“The Overpowering” Sekhem of “The One Set Apart”
In his hauntingly lovely 1829 poem, “Alone,” Edgar Allan Poe articulates a perspective that not only accurately encapsulates my own views of myself, but one that I think strongly resonates with Set’s energetic current:
From childhood’s hour I have not been
As others were–I have not seen
As others saw–I could not bring
My passions from a common spring…
Among the Kemetic Neteru, Set stands apart–not just in terms of appearance (more on His zoologically unclassifiable animal head in a minute) but by virtue of His very character. He’s even set apart (see what I did there?) in the way in which He entered the cosmos: according to Plutarch’s Moralia, unlike His siblings’ tranquil birth experiences, Set tore Himself out of Mother Nut’s womb prematurely, an act wholly in accord with His supremely dynamic, zero-tolerance-for-passivity nature, as we’ll see. The etymology of His name connotes overpowering force, separation (an alternate hieroglyph for His name depicts, iconographically, a dual blade and represents the verb “to separate”) and separateness, and excess. (For example, Sutekh, a byname of Set’s of possible Libyan origin, is actually more of a title–“the Drunken One”–one that Set shares with other Egyptian Deities known for Their insatiable love of beer and wine: Sekhmet, Nephthys, and Hathor!) The hieroglyph depicting the weirdly unidentifiable animal head associated with Set functions, according to religious scholar Herman te Velde in his outstanding tome Seth, God of Confusion, “as a determinative for words indicating concepts divergent from the normal order” (24). As we’ll find out, this “divergence from normality” Set embodies takes unbridled life force energy and channels it into:
- Queer sex and the opposition to procreative sexuality and other “natural” processes
- Outsiderhood, dwelling on the periphery (e.g., the desert, foreign lands, etc.)
- Power or force (physical and magical): either morally ambivalent or interpreted as “good” or “evil”
- Disturbance of the natural order caused by the activity of these factors.
But What’s With That Weird Animal Head?
As a God, Set is very, very old: the earliest representations of what’s called the “Set animal”–clearly mammalian, with a long, sloping snout; truncated ears; and, when it’s depicted with a tail, it’s usually raised–date from a tomb of the Naqada I phase of the Predynastic Era (c. 4,000-3,500 B.C.E.). The image is found on objects ranging from ivory combs to scepters.
In the past 100-plus years of archaeology and academic research, there have been many attempts by Egyptologists to zoologically classify the Set animal: people have guessed it’s a strange breed of canine, or a version of a wild donkey, maybe an aardvark–even okapi and giraffe have been suggested! Others have said it could have been a strange, never-before-classified animal that was perhaps hunted to extinction during Egypt’s long history, so we’ll never know.
Herman te Velde points out that since the Set animal (shown on the far right in the image below) was depicted in the company of griffins and other fantastic beasts on tomb reliefs, perhaps the Egyptians never saw it as anything other than an otherworldly creature with no correlation whatsoever to earthly, actual animals (15).
Again, Set is a God set apart, so it’s fitting that His zoologically unclassifiable animal head doesn’t compute with us.
Major Cult Centers and Periods When Set’s Cult Thrived in Ancient Egypt
Major centers of worship included Kom Ombos, Middle Egypt’s Sept-Mertet (Oxyrhynchus), Hermopolis, and the desert oases of Sennu and Unnu. In the Delta of Lower Egypt, the city of Avaris is notable; it’s where the Ramesside pharaohs (Dynasties 18-20) came from. As with medieval Scandinavian kings claiming descent from the god Odin in Northern Europe several millennia later, the Ramesside pharaohs declared Set to be their royal ancestor. The Ramesside Period was one of imperialistic expansion, so rulers like Seti I, Rameses I and Rameses II (of the Book of Exodus in the Bible) and even Queen Hatshepsut adored Set as an aggressive god of war and defender of His own. In the coronation of Pharaoh Rameses II (a.k.a., Rameses the Great), according to the Pyramid Texts, Set speaks: “I establish the crown upon thy head even like the Disk on the head of Amen-Ra, and I will give thee all life, and strength, and health.”
Set’s worship was widespread from the 12th to the 18th dynasties, but about 1700 B.C.E. (the Third Intermediate Period), a change came over the God’s fortunes with the occupation of northern (Lower) Egypt by the Hyksos, foreign rulers from Libya and the Levant. Since Set was equated as being a God of foreigners from that region (even taking Canaanite Goddesses as consorts), His cult began to fall out of favor, and a demonization campaign against Him began in earnest.
The God of Hearty, Queer Sexual Appetites and the Enemy and Friend of Horus
As a priestess of Nephthys and as a bisexual woman who is childless by choice, I’m more than comfortable with Set’s subversive sexuality and contradicting of procreative paradigms. I’m also more than okay with the suggestion made by some religious scholars that the pairing of Nephthys and Set as divine consorts is meant to be a shadowy inversion of the life force promulgation shown in the hieros gamos of Isis and Osiris. We’re not all meant to be breeders–our overpopulated, resource-strapped planet can’t take many more “little miracles,” you know–and sexuality finds expression in a diverse, delicious spectrum of pleasure. I know Set loves to see me strap on my dildo; His statue seems to grin all the more broadly when I smear its snout with my sexual fluids, whether they’re solely mine or a commingled amrita of juiciness and stickiness from My Bodacious Beau and me. Set enjoys the sexual thrills from butch, foreign (war) goddesses like Astarte and Anat (He’s most turned on by the latter when She’s dressed as a man, according to the very conservative E.A. Wallis Budge!). I feel that He thrives as both a Top and a Bottom–the curious ancient Egyptian mythic drama of “The Contendings of Horus and Set” provide more than ample literary evidence of that.
Here’s the jist of the myth: the throne of the slain Osiris is up for grabs. As His brother, Set believes automatic succession is His. Horus, however, as the Son of the God, makes a claim for the throne also. (And let’s not forget that the Egyptian word for “throne” is Ast–in other words, the goddess Isis.) In the heated contest that ensues–and scholars have variously interpreted this battle as a political allegory for the divisions between Upper and Lower Egypt; or the forces of civilization (Egypt) against foreigners (Set)–reference is made to the wounding, shrinking, and subsequent leaking of Horus’ “eye” by Set’s “fingers.” It’s a problematic translation because the word for “finger” can also be translated as “phallus” (te Velde 50)! In retaliation for this wound, Horus grabs Set’s testicles, and reference is made not to castration, as some have misinterpreted, but to the theft of the seed of Set–in other words, Set doesn’t get to ejaculate inside His necrophiliacally-conceived (let’s just let what Isis did sink in for a moment, folks) nephew!
To view the “Contendings” as straightforward acts of physical combat between two combatants is sheer nonsense. Aleister Crowley just may have been onto something when he associated the “Eye of Horus” that Set penetrates with the anatomical region of the sphincter, not an actual eye. (Look at the Thoth Tarot card of The Tower and read what Crowley had to say about it.) His theory is bolstered by the fact that a papyrus excavated from a tomb in Kahun reads, “The Majesty of Set said to the Majesty of Horus: ‘How beautiful are Thy buttocks!'” Several literary references from ancient Egypt attest to the sexual liaisons between Horus and Set; this is why, te Velde states, the ideas of this battle being a political allegory for the division of Egypt just don’t cut it:
If it was indeed the experience of a militant conflict, in this case the wars before the union of the country, which gave rise to the myth of Horus and Seth, then it is strange that these wars are only mirrored in the battle of the gods Horus and Seth and not elsewhere in Egyptian mythology. It also remains inexplicable, why these wars are related in such unmistakably sexual terms as the theft of testicles. (Seth, p. 40)
Eventual reconciliation between these two Gods comes from another act of spilled seed, curiously enough, but this time it’s Horus’. Isis, once again in Naughty Magician Mode (as She was when She tricked Ra into revealing His secret Name to Her), knows of Set’s fondness for lettuce (a staple cult food of His for its aphrodisiac properties in Egyptian lore). She takes some of Horus’ semen and scatters it on a lettuce bed, thereby enticing Set to gorge Himself. When He does…drum roll, please!…He gets pregnant! And it’s Thoth Who leaps from His forehead; that’s right, the Moon God of Wisdom was said to be born of the union of Horus and Set, thereby acquiring the epithet, “Son of the Two Lords.” As a Divine Arbiter, Thoth intercedes and ends the Contendings. The lector-priest who represents Thoth in the temple rituals recalls the dissonance that was overcome:
I know the sky, the know the earth, I know Horus, I know Set.
Horus is appeased with His eyes.
Set is appeased with His testicles.
I am Thoth, who reconciles the Gods, who makes the offerings in their correct form. (qtd. in te Velde 50)
Set, the Force That Overpowers the Chaos Serpent
The reconciliation of Horus and Set is a very good thing, as both Gods’ martial prowess is needed on Ra’s solar barque called Millions of Years. Set’s indomitable strength is needed on a nightly basis during Ra’s sojourn in the Underworld, where the Chaos Serpent awaits to devour Him. Several Gods are enlisted, but none are named “chosen of Ra” like Set is. Set Himself boasts in the Pyramid Texts:
As for me, I am Set, the greatest of strength among the Ennead, and I slay the Enemy of Ra daily, being in front of the Barque of Millions, and none other God is able to do it.
As a rowdy Storm God, a God of unbridled zeal and dynamism, Set is called upon to do the dirty work, which He executes with gusto. A quality of magical thinking particular to the ancient Near East was that like should be fought with like, or “evil” against a greater evil. To quote Egyptologist Geraldine Pinch, “when something chaotic and dangerous had to be overcome, a being who possessed those qualities needed to be enlisted on your side” (Magic in Ancient Egypt 32). In putting His ferocity and warrior energy to use in His nightly battle against the Chaos Serpent on behalf of Ra, Set proves how His violence, usually thought of as “chaotic” or “disorderly,” in fact very much serves to uphold cosmic order, or ma’at, a fact that has to be kept in mind when reflecting on Set as the murderer of Osiris.
Helpful Correspondences in Honoring Set Today
I wasn’t joking at the outset of this post when I said to cue the Norwegian black metal. I’m not the only devotee of Set nor Kemetic Reconstructionist who believes that Set is absolutely a fan of various metal genres. A song I love to dance to for Set as an act of religious worship is Enslaved’s song “Riitir” (from their 2012 album of the same title)–I can hear Big Red Himself providing the lead vocals:
If you’re not into heavy metal, consider these correspondences if you’re looking for ways to enhance your devotional experiences with Set:
- Red is definitely Set’s color: it’s not just the color of the life force, which, as such, was sacred to the Egyptians (as to the Chinese), but it was also associated with dangerous or unlucky things. People with red hair were said to be under Set’s influence; this is the origin in the Mediterranean of the belief of redheads as unlucky people (a superstition that survives in modern Greece) and in medieval Europe of red-haired women being witches.
- Set was associated with gold and iron as metals; one of his epithets is Nubti, the “golden one” because the old Delta mining town with which His cult was established in the Predynastic Era was Nubt (also called Naqada), “the golden city.”
- Set was associated with iron—especially meteoric iron. His massive harpoon and lance, with which He skewers the chaotic Apep serpent on a nightly basis in the Underworld, are both thought to be of iron. In the famous “Opening of the Mouth” ritual Egyptian priests performed on the royal dead as well as on statues to “activate” them to inhabit the presence (ba) of a god, the blade needed is called an adze, and it was made of iron and credited as having been wrought by Set for the task:
- “O King, I split open your mouth for you with the adze of iron which split open the mouths of the gods, with the iron which issued from Set, with the adze of iron which split open the mouths of the gods.”
- Therefore it’s totally appropriate to use hematite or iron pyrite as offerings or as part of your shrine’s decor.
- Sacred foods associated with Set—we know they were His because as foods, they were taboo to priests of Isis and Osiris—are lettuce, as I mentioned earlier; and watermelon, the latter associated with His spilled ejaculation when He, in the form of a black pig, was intent on raping Isis.
- Red wine and red beer were and are favored offerings.
- He is associated with thunderstorms—Set was known for His fearsome roar—and the life-giving rains to crops; He could cause death by drowning from flooding, which adds another interesting layer of meaning to the murder/ritual sacrifice of Osiris, given that the God’s sarcophagus was tossed into the Nile.
- Associated with the was scepter, symbol of sovereignty. It’s a lightning like symbol of dominion, capped with the head of the Set animal.
- He is also associated with the desert as a vast, red place that was the home to threats both natural and supernatural. The deserts were teeming with spirits that were harmful to humans—a belief that survived well into the Islamic era; even in Saudi Arabia today, there are folk beliefs about the djinn—and Set had power over those, as the Magical Papyri from the Late Period inform us. Like His sister-wife, Nephthys, Set commands the legions of spirits of people who died violently or too soon: the mu’ut. Invocations to Set to control those very spirits are found in the Late Period Greek Magical Papyri.
- Griffins, which the Egyptians called teshtesh, are Sethian fantastic animals; Set was sometimes depicted as winged to accentuate His swift, active nature.
- Other animals associated with Set: besides the zoologically unclassifiable Set animal, there are the pig, the donkey, the Nile crocodile (an animal that was greatly feared and revered), the hippopotamus, the bull (one of His epithets was the Bull of Ombos), the fennec fox (a desert creature), the oryx antelope, the gazelle, the aurochs (extinct), and even fish like the lowly carp (it was a carp that ate Osiris’ penis).
Happy Birthday, Beloved Set!
I’ve really come to know and adore Set so strongly in the past year, and I can’t give Him enough thanks and praise for the innumerable ways He’s blessed me and helped me to walk my liminal, crooked path with peace and power. Be that as it may, here’s my heartfelt hymn to offer Him on His blessed birthday:
Hail to Thee, Set-Nubti, Golden One,
Walker in liminal spaces, the Outsider, the One Set Apart,
Whose Might is greater than all the Neteru,
Urt-Hekau, Mighty One of the Words of Power,
Bless me to come to a greater understanding of Thy Mystery
May I stand strong upon the earth before Thee
May my lips ever sing in praise of Thy Majesty
Happy Birthday, Set! Dua Sutekh!
Works Cited and Suggested Reading
Betz, H.D., ed. The Greek Magical Papyri in Translation. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1992.
Budge, E.A. Wallis. The Ancient Egyptian Book of the Dead: The Papyrus of Ani, Egyptian Text Transliteration and Translation (reprint of 1888 unabridged original). Mineola, NY: Dover Publications, 1967.
Faulkner, R.O. The Ancient Egyptian Coffin Texts. 3 vols. Warminster: Aris & Philips, 1973-1978.
—–. The Ancient Egyptian Pyramid Texts. Oxford: Clarendon, 1969.
- Griffith and Herbert Thompson, eds. The Leyden Papyrus: An Egyptian Magical Book. Mineola, NY: Dover Publications, 1974.
Budge, E.A. Wallis. The Gods of the Egyptians: Studies in Egyptian Mythology. Vol. 2 (1904). Mineola, NY: Dover Publications, 1969.
Flowers, Stephen. Lords of the Left-Hand Path: Forbidden Practices & Spiritual Heresies. Rochester, Vermont: Inner Traditions, 2012.
Ford, Michael W. Necronomicon: Egyptian Sethianic Magick. Houston: Succubus Productions, 2013.
Lansberry, Joan Ann. Images of Set: Changing Impressions of a Multi-Faceted God. Oxford: Mandrake, 2013.
Page, Judith and Ken Biles. Invoking the Egyptian Gods. Woodbury, MN: Llewellyn, 2011.
Pinch, Geraldine. Magic in Ancient Egypt. Austin: University of Texas Press, 2006, revised ed.
Reed, Ellen Canon. Circle of Isis: Ancient Egyptian Magic for Modern Witches. Franklin Lakes: Career Press, 2002.
Shafer, Byron, ed. Religion in Ancient Egypt: Gods, Myths, and Personal Practice. Ithaca: Cornell Univ. Press, 1991.
Siuda, Tamara L. The Ancient Egyptian Prayerbook. Joliet: Stargazer Design, 2009.
Teeter, Emily. Religion and Ritual in Ancient Egypt. Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press, 2011.
Velde, te Herman. Seth, God of Confusion: A Study of His Role in Egyptian Mythology and Religion. Leiden: E.J. Brill, 1967.