Friday, July 29, 2011

Prayer to Set on his Epagomenal Day

Hail to you Set, Lord of the South, Lord of the Desert—the Red Lands of Khemet. You tore from the side of your Mother, Nut, in fire and lightning, and descended upon Earth in a rush of heat and wind. You struck the desert with your double strength, and sent forth darkness, storms, thunder, and lightning upon the Two Lands. Oh, Set, Lord of Iron, turn not your storms upon us, turn aside your thunder to strike in the heart of the desert!

Red one, who holds in charge all the beasts of night and of the deep waters, to whom look hippopotami, crocodiles, serpents, and the ass, braying its coarse prayers to you, may you hunt the enemies of Khemet and save us from your wrath. Oh, Smai, leader of the 72 smaiu who hunt through the desert lands, and whose thundering keeps us huddled in our homes at night for safety, turn not your wrath upon us.

This is actually Reret, not Isis.
Guide us through the night, oh Set, strengthen us for the journey to the stars of Meskhenti, the four stars Great Thigh in the northern sky that never sets. May Reret, the hippopotamus Goddess who holds you bound among the imperishable stars aid us in passing you to the Children of Horus when we rise to become akhu in Orion! Hold up the ladder, oh Set, that we may climb to the imperishable stars and become reborn! Sail upon the night boat of Re, Akhemu-seku, and defend us from the evil minions of Apep!

We know you as both Nubti and as Sutekh, in your temples of Sept-Meret-Et (Oxyrhyncus) and Wennu (Hermopolis) and in Het-uayret (Avaris) in the Delta, where the Hyksos ruled for a time. We thank you for the gift of intoxication that you brought us through the magic of beer and wine, but ask you to hold us back from brawling as is your wont when drunk. Go to your wife, the Lady of the House, and sleep off your drunken rage, oh Set; let Nebet-hes soothe you until you wake refreshed. We honor you in your day, oh Set, ankh djet.

Set is a difficult God for us to understand, with our modern Western minds filtered through Judeo/Christian/Islamic dualistic thinking. The Victorian Egyptologists, mired in this mind-set, equated Set with the Devil and as a God of Evil, which is not how he functioned among the Heliopolitan Ennead. Set was a force of wildness, violence, and chaos, as opposed to Osiris, who represented civilization, peace, and order, and as twins with such different faces presented to the people of Egypt, a certain level of fear did surround Set as a God. For the Egyptians, the true God of Evil was Apep, the serpent god in the Dwt who sought to destroy Re each night, leaving the world in darkness and chaos. Later associations of Set with Apep in Egypt reflected Greek ideas brought in with Alexander and contact with the Middle East; Set was originally placed in the boat of Re each night to defend against Apep, after Horus defeated him and united the Two Lands.

But we need to look deeper at Set to see what he represented to the ancient Egyptians. I believe that the Epagomenal Gods, two sets of twins and a mediator, Heru-ur, represented memories and symbols from the Age of Gemini, which ran from around 6000 BCE to about 4000 BCE. During this period, the Nile valley was stabilizing, after the wild floods of the Age of Cancer, and the Western desert (Sahara) was drying out. In the Age of Cancer, many of the folk who became Nile valley farmers in the Age of Gemini hunted and gathered in the waddis of the desert, and herded lyre-horned cattle. 

When you consider that Osiris is said to have taught Egypt the elements of civilization, including agriculture, the parallels between Osiris and Set become clear. Set represented the old hunter-gatherer ways of roaming the desert, seeking food wherever it might be found around the water holes and deeper rivers, while Osiris became the Green God of growing grains and agriculture. There would be a natural tension between the two, which was probably reflected in multiple incursions of one group upon the other's territory, symbolically remembered in the wars of Heru-Ur against Set's minions. The first uniting of the Two Lands actually came between Heru-Ur and Set; only later was the former shifted to Horus, son of Osiris and Isis and made into a drama of vengeance.

Set represented the sterility of the desert, and all things wild and red. Red-haired or red-faced people were said to be under the influence of Set, which may be where his association with drunkenness first occurs. As one becomes drunk, one's face flushes red, and often one becomes belligerent—possessed by Set! When I think of Set in this aspect, I am reminded of the character of Bluto in the Popeye cartoons: a big bruiser whose temper is inflamed with drink, causing him to easily lose control and get in trouble.

Set's association with dangerous creatures of the night, such as serpents, and with those of the deep waters, such as hippopotami and crocodiles, reflected the ambiguity with which the Egyptians viewed him. Since these dangerous creatures existed, and often interacted lethally with those who lived along the Nile, they must be associated with a Neter to fit within the Egyptian concepts of Divinity. Set's strength, cunning, and dangerous behaviors made him the natural ruler of all such creatures. 

His association with the ass (a type of donkey) is more problematic. Part of it relates to the reddish coat most asses have, and to their decidedly unmusical bray. Donkeys are notoriously sexual, and Set has this aspect in his mythology as well. The Egyptians would offer a donkey to Set in the month of Choiak, the time of the Winter Solstice. Offerings were also made to Set in at the Full Moon in the month of Pachons, and on the first day of the month of Mesore, according to Wallis Budge. These were intended to avert Set's association with darkness and the taking of light from the Sun and Moon; Set was strongly associated with the waning of the Moon, while Osiris with its waxing to Full.

Set's association with the northern polar constellations, specifically the four stars of the bowl of the Big Dipper, seen as the Thigh of an ox on the Zodiac of Denderah, was a natural idea for the residents of Upper Egypt. That area was the place from which darkness, mist, rain, and cold descended upon the Two Lands as the strength of the Sun waned each year, but Set was also restrained there by a hippopotamus Goddess, Reret, who kept him fettered. Her temple at Het-Khayat celebrated her ability to restrain the cold and darkness of Winter, and to clear the way for the birth of Horus, Lord of the Two Lands, son of Isis and Osiris, who is the Spring sun, according to Wallis Budge. She is conflated with Isis in later times. 

Set was one of the helpers of the soul in seeking immortality, and was accompanied by the four sons of Horus—Mestha, Haypi, Duamutef, and Qebhsennuf—who were said to live behind the Thigh in the northern sky. Note that one of the shafts from the King's chamber of the Great Pyramid targeted a star in the Thigh as part of its function as a resurrection machine.

Set was associated with iron, and the description of his birth—tearing his way from the side of Nut rather than being born in the more normal way—sounds strongly to me of the memory of a descent of a meteorite, from which one could mine meteoric iron. This metal was known to be precious to the ancient Egyptians, having fallen from the iron plate of the sky and the ancestral stars. Set was also associated with storms, thunder, lightning, and hot, dry winds coming off the desert, and the dessication due to the Sun in the late Summer leading up to the Nile floods. If a largish meteor had landed somewhere in the western desert before the advent of hieroglyphic writing, it could well have brought a period of storms and darkness remembered as Set's birth. The ancients who were not literate used the symbols and images we know as myth as containers for memories passed down by word of mouth—the stronger the imagery, the more likely it was to persist. 

In some of the pyramid texts, Set is said to help Horus set up an iron ladder to the heavens, viewed as a great iron plate, up which Osiris (the individual) must climb to be reborn among the stars. In this sense, Set is the twin of Heru-Ur, not Osiris, as his strength stands the deceased in good stead. In line 192 of the text of Pepi I, the deceased prays to these two Gods, "Homage to thee, O divine Ladder! Homage to thee, O Ladder of Set! Stand thou upright, O divine Ladder! Stand thou upright, O Ladder of Set! Stand thou upright, O Ladder of Horus, whereby Osiris came forth into heaven" (Budge, 1969, ii 241-242). Similarly, in line 493 of the text of Unas, the deceased prays, "Unas cometh forth upon the Ladder which his father Re hath made for him, and Horus and Set take the hand of Unas, and they lead him into the Dwat" (Budge, 1969, ii 242). 

Heru-ur was god of the sky by day, while Set was god of the sky by night; both assisted the deceased in his or her afterlife journey in the Dwt; their hostility balanced by Thoth as Ap-Rehu, the judge of the two opposing gods, and alleviator of strife. Set was also associated with enemies, and those who were bound as captives, although Isis released him after he was captured by her son, Horus, because she understood the necessity of balance provided by Set. 

Western duality loses sight of this essential understanding and must see Set as "evil," when he was simply an explanation for those events that seemed opposed to the desirable order of life: storms, earthquakes, eclipses, the dark of the Moon, and the darkness of night. While these things are feared, the Egyptians realized they were not evil in themselves, simply events that happened and required a response to restore order. Set could give one strength, and assist one in navigating the Dwt and the dark if one propitiated him carefully; or he could be an obstinate foe and source of violence if one did not approach him with respect!

Let us move away from the concepts of evil versus good, Devil versus God that take us into hatred of Set through lack of understanding. Let us restore this God of chaotic nature to his rightful place as one of the Epagomenal Gods, children of Nut.

Wallis Budge, E. A. (1904; 1969). The Gods of the Egyptians: Studies in Egyptian Mythology, in two volumes [Reprinted by Dover]. New York, NY: Dover Publications, Inc.

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