Thursday, July 21, 2011

Jeudi: Great Spirits

When my family first moved to Southern California I was very much wrapped up in Ancient Egyptian mythology.  In that hot, arid land it was very easy to imagine the creatures and spirits that Egyptian culture conjured up.  During the extreme weather known as Santa Ana winds, I always found myself meditating on the Lord of the Red Land, Seth.  To me, this ancient god is one of the most paradoxical of the Egyptian pantheon.  And, perhaps, one of the most misunderstood.

Seth, whose name is sometimes spelled Set following the correct pronunciation, was one of the original five children of the sky goddess Nut.  He is an old god; representations of him as a bizarre, donkey-like beast appear on pre-dynastic artifacts such as the war club of King Scorpion.  In the Old Kingdom he was considered a god of strength and courage who rode at the head of the sun god’s barge where he kept the terrible serpent Apophis at bay.  Seth was the protector of Egypt in general and the Pharaoh in particular.  The strongest metal known to the Egyptians, iron, was called “the bones of Seth”.  But something happened to Seth’s good name around the time of the Hyksos occupation toward the end of the Middle Kingdom, and his powerful personality began to take on a very dark mantel.

The Hyksos, invaders from central Europe who introduced the wheel and the horse into Egypt, found a great affinity for the warlike, powerful Seth.  They equated him with their god Ba’al and worshiped him accordingly.  Whether or not the conquered Egyptians, who always had a distaste for foreigners and their customs, imagined Seth had betrayed them is unclear.  What is clear is that, with the restoration of Egyptian Pharaohs around 1640 BCE, Seth became an embodiment of evil.

He was known euphemistically as the “Red One” and, in a culture where order and balance were primarily important, assumed the throne of chaos.  He caused the withering hot winds to blow sand storms toward the Nile.  He encouraged rebellion and invasion.  He married foreign goddesses like Astarte and Anat.  Seth became so horrible in the eyes of the Egyptians that his name was not spoken, or even written, and depictions of him were often pierced through the head or body with a knife to nullify his out of control power.  Though the 19th Dynasty of Seti I and Ramses II would embrace the old vision of Seth, the damage to his character was essentially done.

The real slander to Seth’s name came with the reworking of the myth of his family which became part of both popular and ceremonial religion by the start of the New Kingdom.  As noted, Seth was one of the five children of Nut and the Earth god Geb.  These children, some of the most powerful gods in the Egyptian pantheon, were born over the course of a five day period in the following order: Osiris, Seth, Horus, Isis, Nephthys.   Four of the gods were grouped into couples, with Osiris marrying Isis and Seth paired with Nephthys. 

The story goes that even at birth Seth was competitive and cruel.  As he saw his brother being born before him, he clawed his way out of the womb rather than have to follow behind anyone else.  Nephthys, originally a quiet consort, was said to be none too happy in her marriage.  Her son, Anubis the jackal headed lord of funeral rights and embalming, was now rumored to be the offspring of a fling with Osiris rather than Seth’s child.

Osiris and Isis took the throne of Egypt and a time of plenty and peace fell over the land.  Seth grew more and more jealous and, in a bid for power, killed Osiris by getting him drunk and convincing him to climb into a sarcophagus which was then locked down and thrown into the Nile.  Isis, a master magician, found her husband’s body in a sycamore tree in far off Cypress.  With her dead husband she managed to conceive their son and heir who was confusingly named after – and eventually absorbed – his uncle Horus.

After Seth found his brother’s body and desecrated it by cutting it into seven pieces, Isis regained all but one piece of her husband and then hid in a swamp.  Here she not only performed the first embalming on her beloved spouse but also raised her son to hate his uncle Seth.

When Horus grew to manhood he challenged Seth for the throne of Egypt and an epic battle lasting eighty years ensued.  Horus lost an eye to Seth and in turn castrated his uncle when Seth tried to rape him.  In the end good, in the form of the falcon headed son of Osiris and Isis, prevailed.  Horus became the protector of Egypt in general and the Pharaoh in particular.

It is obvious, when one takes a closer look, that the story has been doctored.  Originally Horus was not the nephew but the younger brother of Seth.  While obviously murdering ones brother to gain the throne is questionable, there can be no question that in the original family lineage Seth would be next in line for that throne.  It is only with the glaring addition of Horus-son-of-Osiris and the disappearance of Horus-son-of-Nut that the succession changes.  The addition of particularly vulgar actions on Seth’s part, like corpse mutilation and rape, only add insult to the original injury.  Particularly curious to me is the fact that Isis, who is always held up as the ultimate hero of the tragedy, was not known as Isis by the Egyptians but as Au-Set.  Even her name was kin to the Red One’s.

The Egyptian religion, which dominated much of the Middle East for 4,000 years, was bound to be a fluid, ever changing doctrine.  But the jarring demonization of Seth is as unprecedented as it is an instructive bit of foreshadowing with regard to powerful religions around the world.

Header: Ramses III crowned by Horus and Seth c 1170 BCE


Timmy! said...

This phenomena seems to be fairly common with all of the major religions as you point out at the end of the post, Pauline. It's similar to the demonizing of Hades, Lucifer/Satan, Pan, Baphomet and so many others. Which is one of the reasons why they all seem to be my favorite dieties in all of these myths, I guess...

Pauline said...

The evolution of both the popular and religious view of Seth is possibly the first time that a world religion so obviously demonized a previously widely worshiped diety. As you note, it surely was not the last but that doesn't make it less instructive.

What ever the case, things are rarely as black and white in their original form as they have come down to us.

Undine said...

I'm really glad you wrote this post, as I believe it makes a particularly important point. This persistent demonization of "good guys" is probably the most curious phenomenon I've discovered, not only in religion, but history in general. Still goes on up to the present day, IMHO.

Pauline said...

I agree with you 100%, Undine. Given the long history, it seems to be an ingrained human behavior.