Sunday, February 15, 2015

Thoughts About the Cult of Set-Typhon in Roman-Egypt

I recently wrote an article about how the early Egyptian Christians, Sethian Gnostics and the purported owner of the PGM (Greek Magical Papyri) collection of spells all lived in proximity to each other, and their book burying occurred all within a couple hundred years or less. What I was thinking was that maybe there was some kind of connection between the writers and owners of the books of the Nag Hammadi Library, the Bruce Codex and the PGM. I was intrigued by this connection, but further reflection (and the help of Jake Stratton-Kent who likes to throw cold water on my fervent ideas) has caused me to consider some other options. It is just that the religious world-view of the PGM is so different than the world-view of the early Christians and Sethians that they must be considered incompatible.

What throws my previous thoughts into question is that the role of Set-Typon in the PGM is so pronounced in the various spells which populate that work, so it would have been impossible for Christians or Sethians to even consider them as sources for their work. To them, Set-Typhon was the Devil, perhaps even more evil and diabolical than the supposed Archons who at least were lawful evil instead of turbulent and chaotic evil (like the evil of foreign conquerors). Also, there was no confusion between their Jewish patriarchal hero Seth and the Egyptian God Set despite what some earlier scholars of Gnosticism have claimed. (Jake also supplied me with this paper to read, and you can find it here.)

Set didn’t always have such a bad reputation in Egypt, and in fact he had cultic locations in Avaris and upper Egypt in the delta region (Ombos-Naqada, Kom Ombo, Oxyrhynchus, the Fayum, and particularly, Sepermeru). Set had the exclusive privilege of protecting Ra and his solar-boat entourage in the underworld by nightly killing the great serpent Apep who threatened the Sun-God in the seventh hour of the Am Duad. He was consistently honored as an important deity in the desert oases that bordered the great western desert, along with his wife, Nephthys. His son was supposedly Anubis, so there could have been a connection between Set, Anubis, and the funeral rites of embalming and entombing. Set is a dark and chthonic deity, but he was also the patron god of solders and the warrior pharaohs of the New Kingdom.

The Set animal, unlike the rest of Egyptian Gods and Goddesses who were represented by both animals and human qualities, is characterized by an unknown mythic creature. His elongated snout and long rectangular ears, thin forked tail and canine body might be considered the suggested representation of an aardvark, but other animals became associated with Set as well, such as the fennel fox, jackass, wild pig or the desert jackal. Set symbolizes the desert storms, such as the Khamsin, that plague both upper and lower Egypt during the spring, and as such, he represents the opposite of the regulatory power of Maat that was so important to Egyptian religious thinking. However, violence had its uses, and in the case of the underworld solar boat journey, Set’s violent nature was put to constructive use. He was therefore the deity most associated with warriors and warfare. However, he was also associated with jealousy, fratricide, deception, homosexuality and foreign invaders from the East. Set’s composite animal nature was supposedly explained by the fact that he was impatient to be born and so tore himself loose from his mother’s body, Nuit, while he was still not completely formed. To make up for this discrepancy, he used the parts of other animals to complete himself.


As an aside, I have always wondered why the Egyptians would have represented their deities as a synthesis of human and animal. Not all deities were depicted as both human and animals (such as Amun), but many of them were. The Greek and the Romans found this peculiar mixing to be quite strange, and it became a hallmark of later Greco-Egyptian synchretism (such as Serapis, Aion, Abraxas, and other animal-human deities of late antiquity). However, very few modern Egyptologists have explained this phenomenon in a manner that made any sense. They seem to gloss over this peculiarity and not attempt to explain what was actually behind it. There just didn’t seem to be any answer that would account for this kind of perspective, particularly since modern western people have been so influenced by the Greeks and the Romans who saw the animal human deities of Egypt as archaic, barbarous and somehow quaint. The way to approach this question is to turn it around and ask how did the Egyptians perceive nature itself. Once the question is turned around then it is much easier to answer. I recently read the follow section in one of Jan Assmann’s books, “The Search for God in Ancient Egypt,” and I have decided to quote it here, since it more than adequately answers this question.    

To the Egyptians, nature was curiously open in directions that set it apart from our concept, in the direction of culture – following from the principle of the ‘social interpretation’ of nature,” ... and in the direction of the supernatural. To them, nature was ‘supernatural’ in a way that fundamentally prevented the concept of nature. ... The Egyptians did not experience the divine in nature in explicable, exceptional cases like rainbows, earth quakes, solar and lunar eclipses and the like, but in the regularity of diurnal and annual cyclic processes. Nature was not something distinct from the gods, something that they created, over which they exerted influence, of which they had charge. Although statements to this effect abound, inextricably connected with them and sometimes in the very same text, we find the concept that deities were themselves these natural elements and phenomena. The Egyptians did not view their gods and goddesses as beyond nature, but rather in nature and thus as nature. The deities were ‘natural,’ – that is, cosmic – to the same extent that nature or the cosmos was divine.” (pages 63 - 64)

The use of animal human hybrids in the depiction of Egyptian deities was a way for the ancient Egyptians to show that nature functioned in the guise of deities, and that life itself was a common but supernatural condition. Greece and Rome sought to discover the “will of the gods” through the occurrence of remarkable or unusual natural phenomenon. Thus today, we are prone to look for examples of deity in nature by observing exceptional natural events instead of seeing the whole of the cyclic phenomenon of nature as emanations of deity within and a part of nature. This perspective espoused by the Egyptians was a product of early Bronze age paganism, but it managed to be conserved and even refined in Egypt over the many centuries while more modern perspectives (that we would recognize) emerged in the western and eastern Mediterranean, such as those of Persia, Greece, Rome, and even Judea. While the pagan perspectives of ancient Egypt were archaic by the standards of other nations, the ideas that they espoused are oddly more relevant today than they were in antiquity. However, I have digressed from the original point of my article.


During the second intermediate period in Egypt, the Hyksos king Apophis established the deity Set as a monolatry probably because he resembled the favored Semitic storm deity Hadad, which would have been recognizable to the Shepherd Kings and their people who infiltrated and eventually conquered northern Egypt. When the Egyptians, under the Pharaoh Ahmose, pushed the Hyksos out of Egypt, the garrison at the old Hyksos capital, Avaris, continued to promote the cult of Set. Set was later incorporated as an important deity in the theology of the New Kingdom, particularly during the Rameside period, where he represented the military power of the Pharaoh and the Egyptian empire. The Pharaoh Seti used the name “Man of Set” to represent his throne name, and several other Pharaohs from that period also incorporated the deity name Set into their throne names.

However, the deity Set lost his place of honor when foreigners invaded and completely conquered Egypt, beginning with the Persians and then later with the Greeks and Romans. It would appear that Set became identified with foreigners and foreign rule. There was also always the wicked reputation that Set had in his role as the brother of Osiris and his murderer. The role of the evil adversary was amplified in later periods of foreign occupation. By the time Christianity became a powerful religious force in Egypt, Set had become associated with the Greek monster Typhon and was considered a deity of evil and destruction. It is likely that Set-Typon personified the invaders who robbed Egypt of its sovereignty, so to good, lawful and observant Christian Egyptians, he would have exemplified the Devil incarnate. It is for this reason that Christians would have continued to vilify Set-Typhon as the Devil, and any magical charms or spells that invoked his name would have been considered highly diabolic. Since Set-Typhon represented the foreign enemy of the local Egyptians, anyone who would have associated themselves with him, whether from the standpoint of religion or even magic, would have been perceived as pagan diabolists.

What that means is that the individuals who would have been using the spells as they were written in the PGM were very much vested in paganism, and in particular a magically diabolic form of paganism. This would be true despite the fact that author of these spells also shamelessly borrowed various incompatible religious forms in a very synchretistic manner from nearly every known religion. Was there a cult of Set still functioning in Egypt during the first three centuries of the common era? Little is known about what happened to the cultic centers that worshiped Set, but it seems obvious that they would have been severely diminished and then shut down some time after the period of Persian occupation. There appears to be some evidence that Set was still worshiped in western desert oases, but his other known shrines had shut down by then.

It would seem that those who still honored Set would have kept their worship secret and likely underground. Magical spells written by pagan sorcerers that required the acquisition of the harshest of magical powers or the ability to fight against foreign domination and persecution might have adopted Set as their patron deity, and even formed a kind of underground insurgency against a common foe. There does seem to be some minor evidence showing that the magical rites of the PGM in some cases duplicated magical practices found in the various cults of the Egyptian priesthood, as noted and reported by the Greek physician, Thessalos, when he visited Priests in Thebes in the 2nd century CE.

Ironically, while many individuals flocked to the new Christian churches and monasteries, others may have been more inclined to keep the worship of the old deities alive, particularly those, like Set, who afforded a certain currency against the oppressive regime. Those who wielded the magical spells as found in the PGM would have been outsiders and inimical to the interests of the nascent Christian church, and therefore would have been passionately condemned by them. The itinerant pagan sorcerer was not someone who would been a devotee to the newly arising creed, but he might have had no difficulty in appropriating various elements of that creed for his own magical purposes.

Even so, the early Christians in Egypt continued to work forms of magic, as the numerous ostracae would indicate, but that magic had changed so that it used Christian nomenclature even though some of the words of power were the same. There is a continuity between the kind of magic worked in the PGM and that employed by the later Christians, but Christian magic was scoured of all references to pagan deities. The owner of the PGM scroll might have lived in the same neighborhood as the Christians and Sethians, but the worlds they occupied were quite different and distinct. It is unlikely that much contact would have occurred between those who practiced pagan sorcery and those who were Christian or Sethian monks. When we include the myths of the chthonic Greek deity Typhon it becomes quite clear why there was such a distinction between pagan sorcerers and Christian groups.

Typhon was a great monster of epic proportions, a human body with a hundred dragon heads, as depicted in ancient Greek mythology. He was sent by Gaia to fight against Zeus and eventually lost that battle. He was imprisoned underneath Mount Aetna, but with his consort, Echidna, he sired several children, some of whom like Cerberus, the Sphinx, the Nemean Lion, and other monsters were famous in their own right. Typhon was the son of Gaia (Earth) and Tartarus (Hell), so he was a deity of the earth and the underworld, somewhat like Set. The association of Set and Typhon would have certainly empowered Set from a Greek perspective, but made his chthonic qualities even more pronounced so that he would appear completely dark, foreboding and diabolical. As a monstrous power of the deadly underworld, Set-Typhon would have been a remarkable combination, and the hybrid deity would not be one that anyone would lightly summon or seek aid from. Those who made Set-Typhon the center of their religious and magical work would have been considered extreme diabolists, and would likely have had fearsome reputations in their community, that is, if anyone knew about them at all. I can imagine an underground cult of Set-Typhon whose adherents practiced fearsome magical rites and spells, but there is scant proof that such a community ever existed.

Jake is correct in stating that the PGM represents a world view outside and exclusive to that which would have been practiced by Egyptian Christians and even Sethians. They might have employed a vaguely similar form of magic, but it would have been incompatible with the spells of the PGM. Thus, the Headless One exorcism rite is likely unique to the PGM work (and other contemporaneous pagan inspired magic) and wouldn’t have been found amongst the rites and spells that the Sethians might have used. Although I still think that it’s possible that they did perform exorcisms on their initiates as part of the regimen of their work.

Christianity spread very quickly in Egypt during the first few centuries of the common era, and not long after the Theban sorcerer (who owned the PGM scroll) was buried in his tomb, the community religious culture in that locale might have already been changing. In less than a century, the PGM scroll and the magic that it represented would have been something of an anachronism. Pagan sorcerers at that time and in that locality likely went completely underground or maybe even slowly disappeared altogether. They were replaced first by adherents of the Coptic Christian church who practiced magic and later by adherents to Islam, who did the same. Sorcerers for hire have always had to change their methods (and the religions in which they operated) in order to stay employed and keep their customers satisfied. It is likely that such a change happened there just like it did in the rest of the world.

Frater Barrabbas

1 comment:

  1. Well, Fr Barrabas, I've commented twice more since my 1st comment here on your site, and you haven't posted them nor given me a reason why not. I didn't "castigate" you as you showed Reb Yakov had done. I only pointed out why he did.

    BTW, I find your articles well-researched and often interesting, besides well-written. I find no problem in studying all the various things which you pontificate upon, as I'm not a fanatical follower of any religious dogma.

    I hope you publish my posts, as I am interested in these esoteric subjects, address you without rancor, know my English is good, and don't wish to write them without being published. Otherwise, I won't comment anymore.