Game SET Match Meditations on Egyptian Mythology’s Archetypal Bad Boy by Laura Marjorie Miller
Game SET Match
Meditations on Egyptian Mythology’s Archetypal Bad Boy
This is about the time that Set, like a howling desert wind, pinned me up against a wall and I remained.
In Abu Simbel
At long last I had gotten to Egypt. The tour I had chosen to be my first experience was the Land of the Pharaohs Tour led by Yirser Ra Hotep, founder of the YogaSkills school of Kemetic Yoga—Yoga taught according to ancient Egyptian metaphysical traditions—ancient Egypt’s own name for itself is Kemet— and in contact with those traditions’ African roots.
On the sixth day, we drove hours through the Sahara desert to visit Abu Simbel in Aswan, the site of the Rameses and Nefertari temples and the mighty colossi who gaze out over the metallic blue waters of Lake Nasser. We had seen many deities over the course of those days, but one still remained: Set. I knew I’d see him eventually but I didn’t know when and I hadn’t expected to see him here. But that’s kind of the way with Set: he waits until the moment you drop your guard and then he surprises you. He can fry your wiring a bit if you are not prepared.
I’m not going to lie—there truly is a frisson when you first sight Set, and even afterwards whenever you see him. He is formidable. I had just entered Queen Nefertari’s temple, tilted my trajectory toward the wall to my left, and there he was, big as life. It stopped me in my tracks. Set was standing as he is often pictured, facing his nephew Horus, the two of them throwing arcs of life-force energy over the figure standing between them to be blessed.
This is not how one usually pictures Set when his name is mentioned. His most famous myth is that he murders his brother Osiris, cuts Osiris into little pieces and scatters his body mafia-style in dumpsters and dustbins across the Universe. (Isis goes in search, gathers up all those pieces, and reassembles her mate.) When people retell this story, they often relegate Set to being a jealous, villainous Shakespearean uncle, rather like Scar in The Lion King. And then they say he is like Satan because how much people like to have villains, bad guys, to add drama to a narrative! How we love drama, polarity, conflict. But Set is not a devil—one of his other roles, his primal myths, is to guard the barge of Ra as the sun sails across the sky through the day. And Osiris is not “good,” any more than nature is “good” in a personal way; he is a force of nature, he is rebirth and the Nile flood, but not moralistically good in the sense of benevolence or charity.
When Isis reassembles Osiris she can find all but one part of him, his penis, which has been devoured, ingested, and digested by a cosmic crocodile and so is irrecoverable. Osiris can’t be put all the way back together so he can’t rejoin the land of the living, of waking life. He resides in dream life, in the underworld.
What do you feel with Set? Darkness. Tumult. The tempest. A dust devil. The howling, empty desert.
An animal communicator I admire, Wynter Worsthorne, says that when humans view a predator/prey relationship, they often do so by human values. But there is no separation between predator and prey, only a moving to oneness, a relationship that works for the good of the whole. The better the prey species is at eluding the predator through swiftness and cunning, the better the predator species has to become. The better the predator species is at catching, the better the prey species has to become. Each evolves the other, each is of benefit to the other. This is how I view the relationship between Set and Osiris.
So the first time I spied Set was in the Queen’s temple, small, beauteous, and quaint compared to the ego-spasming of Rameses’s shrine. As with any celebrity, I wanted to take a photograph of him. In many of the tombs and monuments, you aren’t supposed to take a photo without a special ticket but people do anyway, surreptitiously; it’s really hard to reinforce. I saved my sneaky photographs for things that were really important to me, and I always asked, felt into, the subject whether it’s okay for me to take a photograph or not. It was more important to me that They said yes, rather than the tomb-minders. Sometimes the answer, when I ask, is No. Sometimes at first it’s Yes but before I leave it’s No so I delete it. But for this picture of Set, the only way I could take the ferocity of him through and into my iPhone lens was to stand where there was a Hathor column in the way, her broad face of benevolence and mercy mitigating, diffusing the intensity of the stream of Set’s energy.
But that was not the last time I would see Set over my tour and my relationship with him would continue to evolve.
What is Set?
Set is imaged as a dark animal with narrow, mysterious eyes, a tapering snout, and long ears that are cut so straight across the ends that they have sharp corners. He is neither a canine, because Anubis is a canine and Set doesn’t look like his son—he is neither an ass. One of the teenage sons on our tour conjectured that Set is an aardvark, which I joked was Arthur’s dark side!—but I reckon that if Set were meant to be an aardvark, or any of these other beasts, you wouldn’t have to guess. Egyptian artists always knew exactly what they were seeing and what they meant to show and expressed it.
It’s a conceit of modernity to assume that ancient people didn’t know what they were doing or couldn’t execute what they intended to convey. In many cases, it’s exactly the opposite: we are the ones who don’t know what we are doing most of the time. On one of the many temple walls that I saw is a scene of fishermen fishing in the Nile, and beneath their nets are depicted at least seven or eight species of river fish that a marine biologist would be delighted to identify, that’s how exact they are down to every detail of their anatomy and relative scale. Down to the patterns in their delicately different scales. Sacrificial animals are naturalistically depicted with care and precision. Which is why I am saying that whatever Set is, he is that.
Whether the artists ever saw Set firsthand, they replicated him over and over faithfully from whatever the first artist saw. That was their service as intermediaries. They were faithful to the traditions they had received that people in the temples would know those gods, and they were faithful to the gods, the Neteru, to make them known.
Perhaps Set is modeled after an animal that no longer exists. But that animal species, whatever it might have been, is depicted nowhere else except as Set. I offer that Set could be an interdimensional being, an extradimensional animal. He is not from here. That description satisfies me the most right now.
In the Cairo Museum
On one staircase landing in the Egyptian Museum in Cairo are hung different papyrus sections of The Book of Coming Forth by Day. I was standing with my group, all of our gazes focused in different directions. My gaze was lazily scanning a diagram of what looked like a row of canopic jars, really mummified figures, all forward facing and obediently or reverently single-file: a hare, a crocodile, a cat, and then… a face long and strange, with long ears and full eyes, turned right towards me, regarding me back from inside the frame. It happened so suddenly it was as if the figure actually had turned its head to look at me.
I froze and felt the charge ride through my whole nervous system.
“Yirser, Yirser, look—“ I said, and went to where Yirser was standing, and right where he was standing at his chest height was another panel, another row of “jarred” mummies, and then one of them staring right at me, a solid black face with pupilless blue eyes. It stopped me in my tracks to be regarded like that. “Yirser, do you see him? I think that’s Set!” Yirser seemed unfazed, wondering why I was making such a big deal, and moved on.
I started to leave, and then I made myself stop. I made myself stand in front of Set, for interminable seconds. Then minutes. I made myself move back to stand in front of the first Set that had stopped me in my tracks. My group moved on, dispersed to collect somewhere else. I stayed. I stayed and met his gaze. I stayed and felt these waves of electric sensation moving through my body, colliding with each other and then dissipating, subsiding before a new wave came sweeping through. I stood inside of Set’s gaze that for whatever reason had singled me out and although I was quailing, I remained. It seemed stupid to answer him in words. You don’t talk to someone like that. That is not how they “talk” to you. I stayed until whatever was happening was over and then I went on my way. It was my most profound experience in the Museum.
I could offer a meme about how accepting Set is akin to accepting the shadow side of ourselves but I feel that is not even close to half the story. What is going on with Set is complex. What I would encourage you is to find your own center in life, to know yourself well enough that you can stand before Set and when his pupilless eyes rake you for shadows, that you know your shadows. That you know your fears in this incarnation. That you know what your soul is, crystalline and vast, and that any inclusions in it are byproducts, the accidents and fruits of embodied life. That you can continue to stand before this unsafe figure as he scans you, not in sass or defiance or daring, but something much more like a combination of humility and confidence, and if you can do that, you will not be burnt to a cinder.
Our mythic realities are changing. Old paradigms are dimming—the intermediary myths, not the earliest myths, the oldest and most ancient origin myths, but the middle-period ones that sometimes aligned but more often occluded and dimmed the original primacy and power of the first stories. But there is a difference, even if we go back the way we came—we are not the earliest people. Even if we revert to a pure state, and earliest form, it is going to be a different form. It’s not that we will know less than the first people but that they will know maybe one thing different than us and we will know maybe one thing different to what they know. They are Osiris before he was torn apart by Set and we are Osiris after he was restored yet not entirely, yet given a new throne and a new function.
This year I have had many complications with my current job which have been affecting what I feel authorized to express because I don’t feel as though I can give advice or offer anything of worth to anybody because right now, I don’t really know what I am doing. So I haven’t been writing as much, and not just for my work, but even for myself. What is there to say?
Into this empty space Vanessa called me and asked me to write something for Void & Arrow. Surprisingly, given the low point I’ve been in, I jumped at it because I wanted to give to my friend, but there may have been something else impelling me. I had three ideas right away, but it was this one that came in the fastest, for Scorpio season, Samhaintide, the occult, the taboo. Funny that out of this desert streak it should be Set that set me in motion, that the unknown is easier to write about than the known, that it was Set who made me want to write about him enough to do it.
Laura Marjorie Miller is an inner-and-outer explorer who believes travel is a path to self-discovery, personal wholeness, and attunement with the Earth. You can find her ebook The Flagrant Joys of Solo Travel at Amazon.com, and make her acquaintance at www.lauramarjoriemiller.com , and on twitter and Instagram at @bluecowboyyoga