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Performing Musical and Magical Utterance


Singing isn’t easy. It’s often downright exhausting, depending on the length of my rehearsal or performance, and the space in which I’ve been asked to perform. I generally need some time afterwards to decompress, and use that time to think about how the singing went, what I can do to improve the next time. After one such hour of intensive one-on-one work with my vocal instructor, I sit down in a coffee shop with my tablet and begin to write out some of the important issues that arose during the day’s efforts.

My notes from that lesson look roughly as follows:

1.) E-vowel needs to be adjusted for full, open sound. Start with ah-ooh-ee to get lip positioning, use y to slide through. ”Ah”s need to be brighter, but careful not to go too bright. Avoid the nasal, lift the soft palate, open the mouth fully.

2.)  Significance of pronunciation does not need to be hyper-realized, can be understood even if consonants are not so harsh, don’t cut off your air to over-emphasize the text. Ride the breath, get the sense of up and over the note, place the voice on it, keep it out of the throat, and don’t let it fall down when shifting between vowels.

3.) Too much mental focus on the minute things I’m singing, and how I’m singing them. Intonation stays stable when I stop thinking and just let myself go after establishing the initial intent.

Set is present across the table from me, sipping the coffee I offered as per usual when we go to this cafe. He watches me write, lets me mentally run some of the concepts past Him with the occasional nod, but looks progressively more and more amused as I poke and prod at each idea individually and consider how to improve upon it.

“You do realize you are writing yourself a how-to regarding spoken heka, right?”

I raise a mental eye-brow. “It’s 17th and 18th century opera, Father. I know I’ve written about heka and music before, but this is fairly specific to an Italian, Baroque cultural frame work.”

“Think about it when you next practice.”

“…You’re pulling your ‘Great of Voice’ title on me again.”


So I humored Him, having learned that my Father is not one to be deterred from nearly any matter He brings up, and came back to the list with a fresh eye a few days later. I explored the ideas I’d written out through my vocal practice that day, and realized that maybe there was something to His initial suggestion. In three main areas — pronunciation, breath, and intent — there genuinely seemed to be some significant cross-over. Lessons from my vocal training could, perhaps, also be of use in my study of heka.


I struggle with pronunciation at times in my voice lessons. My vowels retain traces of my heritage, a “Balmer” Maryland nasality touched with the extra “r”s of Midwesterners who “warsh” their hands. I practice for hours to appropriately open my vowel sounds for romance languages or to fluidly combine them for German vowels with umlauts and schwas. The accuracy of pronunciation matters a great deal to me. It must be correct if I am to effectively convey the language I am trying to sing, if I am going to accurately share with my audience the meaning behind the text, and if I am going to prove myself a knowledgeable and worthwhile singer to those listening who may fluently speak the language I am trying to share.

With this in mind, it was fairly intriguing to me that in her book on Magic in Ancient Egypt, Geraldine Pinch writes:

Spells had to be distinguished from everyday speech, so they were usually chanted or sung rather than simply spoken. The exact pronunciation of many of the words was important, particularly cryptically written words that claimed to be the secret names of gods and demons. This knowledge was presumably passed down in oral tradition. The Graeco-Egyptian papyri sometimes mention the tone of voice in which divine names are to be pronounced. In one Hermetic text, the deified Imhotep explains that ‘the very quality of the sounds and the intonation of the Egyptian words contains in itself the force of the things said.’ (68)

I had to laugh as I related this to my own singing experiences: of course intonation and quality of sound conveys a force! On the one hand, careful pronunciation presents the force of the meaning of the words I seek to share with my voice: accurate intonation is key in the transfer of information, the successful portrayal of words and their associated content. On the other hand, that pronunciation extends beyond the words into emotive, connective power.

An impassioned speech or a beautiful song serves as a tool of connection, emotionally asking us to experience sound in a wholly different manner than something that is simply recited aloud. It has a force to it that is difficult to put into words, but which many of us have likely experienced, establishing a connection between performer and audience, or a communal group of singers. This connection has been studied extensively on both socially experiential levels (see Victor Turner’s concept of communitas) and biological manners (note an article relating to the synchronization of heartbeat amongst choral groups.) In my experience, this communion of feeling and power can be experienced between two or more people, but also between us and the divine. I have lost myself as I sang for Netjer before my shrine, connecting to them in a way no words could describe as I sang, enunciated sacred texts and personal prayer in the profound way that melody necessitates.


When I pronounce my lyrics well, in such a manner that I am able to convey both textual and emotional meaning successfully, I feel incredibly powerful through my singing. Yet over-pronunciation during vocal lessons can result in a serious issue with the success of my performance: cutting off my breath. An over-emphasized consonant closes my throat, keeps my mouth shut for too long. The constant flow of sound comes to a halt as I physically lose the vibrations which previously rode along the air. Falling, the resonance shifts down into my throat where things strain, crack and come to a painful halt. Supported breath, an uninterrupted stream of air maintained through the strength of the diaphragm and stomach, is the vital force behind singing. Without that support there will be little reason to worry about the details of the mouth’s position and the knowledge of pronunciation, as the sound will never come to be. Both are equally necessary in one’s efforts to successfully, and powerfully, sing.

As I wrote about in my prior post about music and heka, I noted that the latter has been described as a “pneumatic exhalation,” an “occult force that infuses the world of things” (Te Velde 1970, 170).  This invisible power, controlled through the breath, and indeed existing as breath itself, was also given a physical, internal aspect. In multiple texts, heka was described as a bodily aspect which could be swallowed or eaten, and thus resided in the abdomen. “When [heka] was transmitted, it was transmitted, as the nature of the information passed on required, from the entrails of the one who possessed it to those of the one receiving it.  Consequently, the malignant forces ranged against the gods preferred to attack their hearts and viscera in order to gain complete mastery over the powers their victims possessed.  To penetrate … the belly of a god was an easy way to establish oneself in the most intimate part of his being and acquire a position of domination there” (Meeks 1996, 96).

If “dominating the belly,” controlling the stomach and the breath the stomach powered, was viewed such a significant way of controlling one’s magical force, so too is control over the stomach a necessary means of controlling vocal power. Air creates the vibrations between the vocal cords, within the mouth, and one’s subsequent control over the air, moving it forward firmly, smoothly, but without pressing too hard, allows for a ringing tone. An unsupported breath becomes a dull, lifeless sound that does not carry. Breathing from the gut and using the stomach to hold that air? The resultant sound rings throughout a room, layered with overtones that the human ear will not perceive as pitch, but which change the timbre of the voice to something undeniably rich, vibrant, and resonant.


It can be challenging to balance the many critiques of my vocal instructor, shifting back and forth in my mind between the exacting shapes of my lips and tongue while simultaneously trying to breathe appropriately and keep the production of my sound above that ongoing current of air. I have found over time that I am often far more successful in practicing one component at a time, then bringing them together in preparation, and finally just “letting go” and completing trusting the intent behind what, and how, I am going to sing. If I am confident, the many little details of my lessons will come together, my voice is powerful, supported, and accurate in pronunciation and pitch. If I hesitate, something falls awry as my micromanaging one detail leads me to neglect another.

So too does this confidence become vitally necessary when I step from the lesson into performance. I must be self assured before my audience: a nervous performer is recognized as such from the instant they step on stage, their posture and expression give them away and are subsequently contagious. The audience expects those nerves to present issues for the musician, becomes nervous themselves. A confident performer puts an audience at ease, and indeed shares that confidence with them. They are not distracted from anything but the musical utterance, and so that opportunity to communicate, the chance to share the power of song, is not obscured by the obstacle of concern.

Writing of one particular magical utterance, Robert Ritner notes that,  in one particular spell, “…the magician himself acts as the ‘fighter’ and claims to be able to turn the enemy’s head and feet back to front and make all its limbs weak. Concentration of the will must have been an important part of making such assertions. The magician’s confidence would then be passed on to the client” (1993, 72). The magician and the musician must concentrate on their will, their intent, and then fully trust in their intentions, if they are to successfully connect with their client or listener.

Performing Musical and Magical Utterance

Combining pronunciation, breath, and intent requires a careful balance between a deeply embodied, physical awareness and a highly mental and emotional action. I cannot sing if I am physically ill, if my vocal cords are injured, if my attempts to breathe result in a coughing spasm rather than firm, bodily control from my gut. I cannot sing if I am mentally ill, if my mind cannot focus on memory, if my self-confidence has been beleaguered to the point that I cannot trust in my own ability to do what I intend with my music.

Yet singing can become heka unto itself in those moments of illness: I have sung long enough at this point to gain control over my breath when I am sick, having stopped asthmatic spasms in their tracks with a breathing exercise from a vocal lesson. So too have I fought depression off with song: standing erect for an hour, forcing my body upright so as to properly create a strong, powerful, sound, I have turned my mood around for the better. Mind follows body, body follows mind, and in singing, with its natural balance between the two, I can help myself attain better health. It is physiological and psychological. It feels like magic, and in truth: it is.

Robert Ritner writes of Aset (in this case, using the Greek form of Her name: Isis) and what makes Her so powerful, what gives Her such control over the magic that She is known for. He quotes the Metternich Stela where Aset speaks, saying:

I am Isis the goddess, the possessor of magic, who performs magic, effective of speech, excellent of words. (34)

Ritner then notes that, “The preceding statement of Isis is also of value for its clear declaration of the tripartite nature of magic, being viewed as an inherent quality or property to be “possessed,” an activity or rite to be “performed,” and as words or spells to be “spoken” (35).

Aset’s magic, Her heka, is possessed within Her body. She performs it aloud, breathing and then chanting, or perhaps even singing, words of power.  She pronounces, with excellence in confidence and command, the significance of those words. She is the master of magical utterance, and perhaps, in Her own way, a prima donna of musical utterance as well.

Dua Aset in Her year! Great Magician, I greet you, and am glad to find a similarity between us. May it lead to greater understanding. 

Dua Set for leading me to this realization. Thank you for helping me to better know your sister and myself. 


Meeks, Dmitiri and Christine Favard-Meeks. 1996. Daily Life of the Egyptian Gods. Ithaca, New York: Cornell University Press.

Pinch, Geraldine. 1994. Magic in Ancient Egypt. London: British Museum Press.

Ritner, Robert. 1993. The Mechanics of Ancient Egyptian Magical Practice. Chicago, IL: The Oriental Institute of the University of Chicago.

Te Velde, Herman. “The God Heka in Egyptian Theology.” Jaarbericht van het Voorsaiatisch-Egyptish Genootshap. Ex Oriente Lux 21.


Fallow Time

It’s funny, that a mere matter of months after writing about “fallow” times — more specifically, that I had yet to experience one since developing the healthiest, and most fulfilling, sense of spirituality in my life to date —  I seem to be experiencing just that. It’s not particularly surprising; wrapping up my masters degree pushed me to the edge of my capabilities as a scholar and functional human being. My body’s doing a bit of recovering after months of sleep deprivation, dodging departmental drama monsters, and generally trying to keep my shit together. Shrine time has been extremely minimal since early April, though Set stayed near throughout the entire experience, an ever-solid presence that provided the occasional verbal kick-in-the-ass to hold the sporadic nights of depression at bay, to forge me into someone capable of finishing the damnedable 70 page paper, and to keep my wits about me even as colleagues turned on each other and professors did nothing.

My partner offered the comfort that balanced Set’s semi-militant commands, and between the two of them, and the voices of other friends and family (I’m looking at you and sending you a lot of love, Tenu) I somehow got through this fucking semester of cancer scares and interpersonal bullshit and self doubt.

I can still sense the gods, but I’m struggling to write anything about Them, and I don’t feel like I can muster the focus to return to shrine just yet. I suspect it won’t be much longer though, just a bit more rest, a bit more genuine down time and then I can be productive again in spiritually meaningful ways.

I’ve started doing grant-writing and newsletter edits for an Ohio no-kill cat shelter run by a friend of mine in Bast’s name. The thesis was officially dedicated to Set, and I’m doing some research into possible local martial arts classes that I might be able to afford again as another physical offering until I feel ready to return to what I was doing before.

I have ideas for what to write when the muse does come back to me.

I still owe a good friend a post on cultural appropriation and what drew me to Kemeticism rather than “my family’s faith.”

I also want to write about Set and my battle with depression, it was originally supposed to my daily life post for KRT, but that ship has sailed, so perhaps it can be converted to something else.

Is there anything else you all would like to read? I welcome the inspiration. I don’t mean to be an attention whore, but honestly just knowing folks still wish to read this and have thoughts on what might be interesting could help in getting me back into the writing flow.

My best to you all.

Kemetic Round Table – Deconstructing UPG

The Kemetic Round Table works to connect Kemetic bloggers of various practices and paths in order to provide helpful information for those new to Kemeticism. More information about the project can be found here.

This week, members of the Round Table were given the following prompt: “UPG, or Unverified Personal Gnosis, and doxa are a large part of many modern Kemetic practices. For this round, we discuss the nuances of UPG and doxa. What do these terms mean? Are there rules regarding these terms? How important is UPG and doxa in your practice, and how important should others’ UPG and doxa be in my practice?”


My issue with the acronym UPG (used for “Unverified Personal Gnosis”)  largely resides in the first word of the three.

Personal is fine. UPG does relate to a personal idea or belief. It is a term which refers to something that happened in your life, or perhaps something that you alone experienced.

Gnosis is a little more complicated, if only in that it’s a complex, multi-faceted concept being shoved into three word phrase. But for now, let’s call it — extremely roughly, mind — knowledge, or insight.

Back to Unverified. Unverified, by virtue of that lovely prefix at the beginning, seems to suggest that it exists as part of a binary. Something is verified, proven to be true, proven to be real, proven to be authentic, or, quite simply, it is not.

And that’s about as gross an oversimplification of the matter as my awful two word definition for gnosis a few lines back.

Now here’s why:

Language is a tricky little git. It gives the illusion of presenting an honest to gods replica of that which it describes, but it never completely encompasses the genuine essence of the experience. Events do occur in time, bodies move, interact, live, breathe, and die — but as soon as any given moment has passed, it can never fully be experienced again save through representations that attempt to revitalize that moment in art, in text, in speech. But none of these ever truly allow the moment to be as it was again: it will be always be bounded by someone’s choices in how to create that representation. The colors, voices, words that are used to encompass some portion of the moment affect how others interpret it in turn, constructing new interpretations of the moment in variations upon variations.

So it goes for our concepts of history.

When I talk with some of the war re-enactors involved in my research, to a man they all contrast the re-enactment history of their group with the “history history,” placing the unverified traditions of their organization in stark opposition to textbook-verified traditions. The re-enactment history: a modern bugle song, anachronistic to the war they seek to portray, yet used for the past 20 years because that’s the way they’ve always done it, becomes a sort of… UPG to these men. A meaningful experience, and yet viewed as a personal choice, something they’ve brought into their own monthly ritual of the re-created war camp without backing it up with proof. In contrast, a brass arrangement of a mid-19th century broadside ballad provides something from the “verified” history — never mind that the primary source was pulled from an edited collection, and that the performance practice is based on a modern-day scholar’s argument of how it might have once been played.

And that’s the issue here: even the “history history” has a touch of “unverifiability” to it. Historians make choices when they decide what goes into their book and what doesn’t. They present us with certain ideas —  some backing these ideas up with sound logic and sources, others not — but these ideas still shape how the history is conveyed. No one writing about ancient Egypt today lived there to tell us how things truly were, we only have the writings of academics, mediated by background and belief and schooling, to give us possible interpretations. And granted, even in considering the history we have lived? That’s mediated too, by emotion, by memory, by nostalgia.

The question raised at the end of all of this: what is the authentic, real, verifiable “history”?

My response:  There isn’t one.

You’re nuts, Saryt. You might say to this.  Why the heck are you involved in a reconstructionist faith if you don’t think there’s a history to be re-created!?

Well here’s the thing. You’re right in saying I don’t believe there’s a history to be re-created. I believe there are histories: personal, communal, national… and each and every one of them valid to the beholder.

And indeed, the way to deal with this plurality of histories and memories is to shift the questions around. I offer the following:

In her seminal work  In Search of Authenticity, folklorist Regina Bendix wrote this critique of research projects devoted to seeking out the history or tradition which was purportedly “authentic” or “real.”

The crucial questions to be answered are not ‘what is authenticity?’ but ‘who needs authenticity and why?’ and ‘how has authenticity been used?’ (Bendix 1997: 21).

With this in mind, let’s ask the following: (a) Who needs a verifiable, authentic Kemetic faith and why? (b) How have verifiable, authentic concepts of Kemeticism been used?

(a) Who needs a verifiable, authentic Kemetic faith?

In my humble opinion, this applies anyone who wants to be a part of the Kemetic community and claim a Kemetic religious identity. There are certain aspects of an identity that can only be stretched so far before it ceases to serve as a marker of a group. There is room for flexibility here: no two people claiming any sort of identity are going to be exactly alike (as a self-proclaimed Irish-American who barely drinks, boy howdy do I know that!) But certain points, certain tenets, must be mutually valued amongst those claiming the title, why else have a title at all.

Chances are good that if you claim to be Kemetic, you’re going to worship certain gods and not others, but the hard versus soft polytheism may vary. Chances are also good that you’re going to find value in the concept of ma’at, but whether or not that becomes a historically informed interpretation of ethics or a more immediate experience of “balancing” in your interactions with gods will different from person to person.

(b) How have verifiable, authentic concepts of Kemeticism been used?

I would argue that verifiable, authentic ideas in Kemeticism, much like any form of historical re-construction (be it other recon-oriented faiths, re-enactment, or even Early Music Performance), are often — but not always! — viewed as a form of what I’ll call subcultural capital. Sarah Thornton defines subcultural capital as that which:

 ..confers status on its owner in the eyes of the relevant beholder. … Subcultural capital can be objectified or embodied. Just as books and paintings display cultural capital in the family home, so subcultural capital is objectified in the form of fashionable haircuts and well-assembled record collection … Just as cultural capital is personified in ‘good’ manners and urbane conversation, so subcultural capital is embodied in the form of being ‘in the know’, using (but not over-using) current slang and looking as if you were born to perform the latest dance styles. (11)

Many of the individuals  that have garnered a fair amount of esteem in the virtual Kemetic community, be they bloggers or spiritual leaders, have objectified subcultural capital: impressive libraries and even degrees. For example, while Hemet balances her academic background with spiritual and community-service based reasons for leadership, people outside of Kemetic Orthodoxy mainly recognize and respect her work courtesy of the several advanced degrees she holds in topically-relevant fields. These individuals also have embodied subcultural capital: they site academic sources, they know the feast days and esoteric information, they write lengthy, academic blog posts. It has arguably become a point of status in the community, certainly a point of recognition, to be well versed in the academic history of Ancient Egypt.

And don’t get me wrong: all of these folks definitively deserve our respect. They’ve worked hard to know what they know, to produce their extensive writings and share their expansive projects. We need folks like them to continue to share what we know of the past, to maintain representations of what was in as close and accurate a replica, mediated though it must be, as words or art can convey. They maintain the community I discussed in point (a) — if newcomers to the faith don’t have access to the vital ideas that allows us to mutually define ourselves as Kemetic, if we lose sight of the agreed upon essentials, we aren’t going to have a community.

But it’s worth it to remember that in the end, both the verifiable “history history” and the unverifiable experiences that we bring to our own interpretations of history are, in their own ways, constructed. Better to be aware of why you need a particular spiritual idea, what it contributes to your religious experience, and to be aware of where that idea came from, be it a textbook, the gods, or your own creative mind, than to beat yourself up over whether or not you can verify it as genuine. That knowledge, that awareness of how the idea was constructed, will serve you well in adding to our community, keeping the debate going as to how we define ourselves now and in the future, and keeping the Kemetic tradition vibrant, changing, and alive.


PBP Fridays 2013 – B is for Bawy

As I have mentioned previously on this blog, many members of the Kemetic Orthodox faith choose to undergo the Rite of Parent Divination. Since the church’s founding in the late 1980s, certain patterns have emerged in which Netjeru frequently appear together in this process. One such link exists between Heru-wer and Set: if someone is divined the Child of one of these gods, the other will generally appear as a secondary Parent or Beloved. Such was the case with me, Set was divined my Father and primary Parent, Heru-wer appeared later in the line-up.

I have struggled to get to know Heru-wer (Horus the Elder) as  I had absolutely no relationship with Him prior to the RPD. His appearance in the ritual was possibly the main factor in my waiting as long as I have to become Shemsu; I could hardly swear my loyalty to a god I knew nothing about, and indeed, greatly disliked for a time due to confusion in my initial, cursory research. Early efforts led me to accidentally mix what I would later learn to be two distinct tales: the struggle of Heru-wer and Set, brothers engaged in political strife as the rulers of the south and the north each vying for control of the whole, and the battle between Heru-sa-Aset and Set, seemingly a prelude to the construction of the Hamlet trope, where vengeance for a father’s untimely murder requires battle with one’s uncle.

Such confusion is common, argues Egyptologist Jan Assman, as these “two mythic circles” overlap. Their separation today remains largely a theoretical construct, for the two streams of tradition freely flowed in and out of each other in varying sources over the ages (Assman 2001, 135). And yet, despite this melding, Assman argues that the occasionally conflicting details matter less than the overarching themes which represent values crucial to Egyptians from all periods: “the overcoming of antagonism, the balancing of opposites, the reconciliation and uniting of contending parties, integration of portions, the achievement of an overarching whole, the consolidation of rule in a single hand” (Ibid., 139).

From p. 65 of “Symbol and the Symbolic” by R.A. Schwaller de Lubicz, this and other images of the Bawy can be found on Joan Lansberry’s marvelous website.

These values stressing a “united duality” had an embodied form (Ibid., 134). One “body” to hold this combination of opposites as the deity Wilkinson calls Horus-Seth, noting that “despite their inimical characters, the reconciled Seth and Horus may be depicted as a combined deity with the heads of both gods” (Wilkinson 2003, 198). This dual-god was worshiped as Antywey (Antywy/Antewy), whose name means “the two clawed ones,” expressing the violence of combat between two opposed forces (Traunecker, 60). Antywey could also be depicted by a pair of falcons, other times with one human body bearing two heads, one falcon, one Set-animal (Lansberry 2012, 51).  Of the specific image at left, she writes, “Horus-Seth stands on a two-headed sphinx, one head Horus with the White Crown and one a human head wearing the white crown.” (Ibid., 51).

Te Velde argues that this god Antywey  “is not an example of ‘another composite deity’ … but Horus and Seth united and reconciled in one god” (Te Velde 1967, 68). Indeed, the god had his own cult in the city of Tjebu, capital of the 10th nome (roughly, province), for most of the Pharonic period, and would retain a following in the city even during the Ptolemic era as Antaeopolis (after Antaeus, adapted from Antywey) (El-Masry, 193). Yet this deity, for all that He exists as a unified entity, seems to contain two distinct ba. Te Velde notes that in Chapter 17 of the Book of the dead, “the uniting and the reconciling of Horus and Seth are spoken of in the same breath … ‘I am He with the two ba’s'” (Te Velde 1967, 70).

From this description we finally discover the reasoning behind the name used for this entity by most of the online Kemetic Community: Bawy, or literally “ba” with the dual ending, making it “two bau” or “pair of bau.” Defined roughly, one’s ba is the individual soul which contributes to the formation of one’s personality. Thus the meaning behind this particular name is crucial: the brothers Set and Heru-wer, the twins united, brought together in the cause of reconciliation and balance, remain distinct in personality and drive.

Ramesses III crowned by Horus and Seth, from Joan Lansberry

This power inherent to the combination of Set and Heru-were without losing sight of either is frequently referenced in discussions of the power of the pharaoh. On page 39 of his article on Seth [Set] as Trickster, Te Velde writes, “Every pharaoh, that is man in his quintessence, is a Horus reconciled with Seth, or a gentleman in whom the unformed spirit of disorder has been integrated” … but arguably not forgotten! Indeed the pharaonic ideal stems from the use of both without the loss of either.

“Sometimes we see that in the unity two different aspects may yet be distinguished: Hatshepsut rules this country as the son of Isis  (=Horus) and is strong as the son of Nut (=Seth). Ruling, the king is Horus, when he must use force he is Seth. Neither of the two aspects can be dispensed with. It is the co-operation of both gods in the king which guarantees the welfare of the world” (Te Velde 1967, 71).

The two remain distinct, and yet equally important as emblems of how a leader must act, what a leader must do, in order to successfully protect their people and nation.

Sema-tawy image, source unknown

It seems worthwhile to note a few other images reflecting combined aspects of Set and Heru-wer. The first is the Sema-tawy motif, in which Set and Heru-wer, individually bodied and yet mirror reflections of each other, symbolically tie together both halves of the divided land.  A similar concept has been depicted with both deities pictured as sphinxes, simply with their respective falcon and Set-animal heads.

Though a less direct connection, it is also worth noting another deity known to some as Anti (or Anty) and more recently as Nemty, who originally guided the henu boat of the falcon deity Sokar, yet in later texts appeared as ferryman of Ra and the other gods.His association with Heru meant that the god could indirectly be associated with Set. Thus it is no surprise that Nemty was depicted with the head of Set on a stela from the Middle Kingdom found near Mount Sinai (Wilkinson, 205; Te Velde 1967, 113).

Finally, though I acknowledge this as something of a stretch, I am also curious to know if various images of a winged Set, such as those collected here by Setken, also offer further insight into a possible cross over of aspects of the falcon god absorbed into His brother.

Despite the complex nature of the myriad forms and names in which Bawy can be found, His presence is still felt amongst the modern day Kemetic community. Songs and prayers have been written, praising and seeking out the power inherent to His potent combination of justice and strength. Others acknowledge the impact He has already had in their lives.

And for the newbies like me? We discover that there is much of our loved and respected Set in Heru-wer and vice-versa. The stranger seems a little less distant, connected now to His brother to embody a force that empowered pharaohs.

Dua Bawy: the opposing forces are reconciled! May the opposition in our own lives be turned to power, the conflicts within us resolved to become our greatest strengths!


Why Set?

Despite having a bit of a rough go with a return of severe bronchitis/minor pneumonia two weeks after the last bout cleared up, my illness allowed me the pleasure of digging into Meeks’ Daily Life of the Egyptian Gods while doing my best to rest and recover. This served me well when an occasion arose to offer a different perspective on my divined Father to an individual who, through various challenging life experiences, had come to associate Him solely with Ap_p, and other incarnations of pure “evil.”

I’ve adapted my response below, removing direct responses to this acquaintance which would share the individual’s personal information (it was a private conversation, after all), but I wanted to record the bulk of what I wrote. I have seen several others share posts in the past few months detailing their life-changing experiences with Set — I highly recommend Devo’s take on a years-long Cycle involving this god, as well as Aeshna’s six part series on how Set came into her life — and felt it important to save this brief take on my own experiences in a more permanent place.

(When I am feeling a bit better and have more time post-”familial holiday shenanigans” I will come back and place page citations throughout the blurb. For now please accept my apologies for the sloppy scholarship, and keep in mind that the references to various texts and tales below are coming largely from Meeks and Te Velde.)

“I come from a Christian background. Essentially every person on both sides of my family is either Methodist or Episcopalian, save myself, and I acknowledge that a fair portion of my moral values likely stem from my religious upbringing. I still attend church when I visit my parents, and generally I have no quarrel with the faith itself: I agree very strongly about living a compassionate life, taking others’ needs into consideration, not benefiting at the expense of others. My issues with Christianity, and the reason I no longer consider myself to be “Christian,” stem largely from the tendency of its followers to take the Bible at face value, reading many of the stories and regulations literally, without consideration of the passing of time and shifting cultural needs/values; without acknowledging that the book , like all books, was written by human hands no matter how much of a role God played in it’s inspiration. So much, too much, has been lost in translation.

I feel similarly about Kemetic texts. If we merely pick and choose certain stories described in the various sources available to us as the be all end all for what a god represents, why would anyone want to worship any Name? Set is of course the violent trickster from the beginning, but digging into other tales we find Ra sending His Eye to destroy mankind, Heru-sa-Aset cutting off his mother’s head in a fit of rage when she accidentally injured Him, Sobek eating the body parts of several other gods with his voracious appetite… I think there is so much more to each and every aspect of Netjer as a whole, in their multiplicity of forms, that merits our attention and can provide important lessons. I personally feel that the manifold assortment of forms and representations inherent to every Netjeru through their complex assemblages of associations and tales, permit them to appear to human individuals in the form that we need most, even if we mortals are unaware of the reasoning at the time.

This is not to discount, ignore, or make light of the cruelty, violence, and mistakes of the gods. They are fallible: they argue, wound each other, manipulate. But this can be as much a lesson as their good qualities. Working with my Father Set, studying the results of His uncontrolled rage, has encouraged me to maintain better control of my own emotions; to get less upset over little obstacles, and to find a conscious, constructive purpose for my temper when it flares rather than letting it go uncontrolled upon someone who did not deserve that wrath. Sometimes we learn best, even from our interactions with other people, by discovering what NOT to do. I believe Netjer knows this, and reveals itself to us accordingly.

Back to Set himself: many do not “do their research” when it comes to this god. They place him as the anti-hero in their personal life’s tale and latch on to Him as a justification for selfishness. They don’t take into account that this was a god who filled many, many different roles over the course of history. His purpose was constantly in flux: from a trickster god, strongest amongst Netjeru, supported by Ra whom He defended each dawn from Ap-p, once beloved brother who fought at the Elder Heru’s side… To the chaos bringer, inviting tumult and change from the day of His untimely birth, fighting and killing for a throne which was arguably not His to claim, eventually exiled and/or changed into a boar and dismembered, even His own mother having given up on Him.

But Egypt needed Him to explain what was going on in their world when things became challenging. Life isn’t kind, accidents happen, people are hurt and sick, loved ones leave us or we must take our leave from them. Set provided a logic for the uncertainties and trials of our day to day existence; there was a reason for those things which, while not evil or inherently destructive, made humanity hurt, weep, and change themselves in turn in order to keep going. His exile and subsequent association with that which was not Egypt, that of outsiders and wars, gave a reason for the attacks and eventual downfall of the kingdom to invading forces. Far better to have Set to curse and blame than have no rationale for why the world outside was harsh and out to get you — our imagined nightmares, stemming from the unknown, are forever so much worse than what our worldview explains.

With this all in mind, I would return to my original issue with Biblical interpretation to say that I believe that our gods are living gods. Their goals, their stories, are still in the making. They adapt (and in a way, through our interaction with them, we adapt them in turn) to the needs of our current situation. So, what is our present situation?

Frightening, to be sure. My Mother, Bast, perhaps encourages me to remain aware of the problems in the world even more than Set. She is an Eye of Ra, the sun itself, a fierce warrior as much as She is a patron of music and affection (to view Her via the later incorporation of many of Hethert’s traits.) In my experience with Her, there is no turning away from the reality of our current world. Though my background is one of acknowledged privilege, I can empathize with this hurt in the world through my relationships with family and friends who have experienced much greater hardship than I. I remain aware of the drugs, the violence, the wars, the environmental concerns, the growing health problems. I do not turn a blind eye to these things, nor do I simply forgive myself with each new Zep Tepi if I contribute to the injustice of the world on any given day. Some day, when I die, my heart will be weighed — I am accountable: for the safety of my ba, and simply because of what I believe to be a good and right way of living.

Set, for me, in this day and age, and based on our personal interaction, helps me to live an empowered life in which I am strong enough, healthy enough, to combat these injustices. He would not let me sit in the depression that once ensnared me and damn near brought me to take my own life, but forcibly challenged me to get up, examine the aspects of my day-to-day existence (an abusive relationship, lack of boundaries with a relative taking advantage of me, lack of physical activity, an unhealthy workplace) which kept me bound, static, to emotional and mental despair.  Together we tore them down. Did I hurt anyone in the process? Yes. My ex and the relative were largely cut from my life, my co-workers may lose the organizer they’ve come to rely on to build community. But these things are balance, not evil. For someone like me, with limited self-esteem and a propensity to let herself get walked on, a healthy dose of self-prioritization was absolutely necessary to get me out of being a useless shell of a person, and instead one who feels fulfilled, who has the strength of will and enough belief in her own merit to get up each morning and want to do something with my life. I do not easily hurt anyone, but sometimes we must be able to hurt someone if we are not to destroy ourselves.

As for the awful nature of the world at large, I attribute the truly destructive aspects to Ap-p, and Ap-p alone. As mentioned by Tif on the forums, Set always leaves something behind. Wesir, though murdered, became god of the dead; Heru-sa-Aset, His eyes stolen, became all the more powerful and supported by the other gods for His uncle’s meddling and scheming. We can’t ignore that Set used morally reprehensible methods to accomplish these things, but in the cases where our hurts serve to forge us into the stronger individuals we are today, we can see His hand at work; though it can take years to look back and see the positive that comes from such situations, given how we wept and struggled at the time.

So Who is Set to me, and how can I follow Him? To me He is balance: the changes in the world that force us to move, adapt, and genuinely live our lives rather than never growing; sloughing off old versions of ourselves and becoming something more. He is a cautionary tale, the example of what not to do in certain situations, because as intelligent, inquisitive humans we will not simply take an order to control our anger and our excesses, we must learn by example as to what fate can befall us if we do not. He is self-preservation, for those of us who have lived lives where we were taught to be timid, subservient, felt ourselves to be worthless. He is belief in oneself, unfailing confidence, the capacity to find oneself worthy of what one wants and needs from life. He is the sword at Ra’s prow, fighting the destructive acts that leave nothing in their wake, allowing the sun to rise another day and encouraging us to fight our own battles, large scale or small, that will permit time to keep marching on. He is “good” and “bad,” as complicated in his desire for enjoyment (in drink, in power) as he is in His place in the world. Indeed, He has been called one of the most human of Names in that regard.”

I am forever grateful for Him.