Over the weekend I was listening to an old audio recording* of a talk that Don Webb of The Temple of Set did about the Egyptian god Set. I really recommend the talk, as it is both very informative and good humoured (and you can find part two of the talk here).
I have a small altar to Set in our living room, and he is the only god with an altar solely dedicated to him in our home. I have a long history of interest in Set going back to my initial forays into Thelema, though this only came into focus about two years ago or so, and he has become key to my path in a way which I am still coming to understand. It’s fairly typical of me that I go towards things instinctively, and understand the whys and wherefores better over time.
There were many things which resonated in Don’s talk, some of which I knew already, and some that were new light bulbs popping. Set disturbs the symmetry of his brothers and sisters, who would otherwise exist in neat male-female pairs. Oops, there goes the “perfect” pattern. Set’s original name of “Sut” means “cutter” or “isolator”, and ultimately relates to him as an initiator. He follows the pattern of “the god against other gods”, which Don links to “the principle of separating oneself from a matrix, and evolving oneself”. Even Set’s birth is unorthodox, as he bursts out of his mother’s side. He has associations with rage, storms, chaos, borders, desert, foreigners and infertility, but he is also the only one who can get the solar barque out of shit creek, as he is the only god who can attack and defeat the seven headed monster Apep each night. The weapon associated with him is the double edged knife used by midwives to cut the umbilical cord in ancient Egypt, separating the child from the mother, the same knife he uses to slay Apep.
Don says that Set is essentially a war god. He certainly has the strength and fierceness which everybody wants to use in a tight spot, but nobody quite seems to want to pay for. He fights a number of adversaries, including Osiris as a personification of stasis, and the aforementioned Apep (the hypnotic hold of unconsciousness, if I am hearing Don correctly), but also, and most complexly, Horus (the Elder) his brother, who he has a turbulent and ambiguous relationship with, including an early incident where they fight and Horus tears off Set’s testicles, and Set gouges out Horus’ eye. Don states that Horus is “the archetype of divine reality”, all those things in your mind which are not your own creation, such as culture, upbringing and preconceptions. Set is “that part of consciousness capable of creation and rebellion”. In their fighting Horus took away Set’s ability to reproduce, and as Don says: “Set has a vested interest in this Earth in having children here”. Meanwhile Horus’ “principle power” is the power of command, symbolised by the eye, so what Set deprives Horus of is the ability to cause people to follow their preconceived patterns. This is maybe why Set is associated with confusion and infertility, but his followers see him as a giver or catalyst of original enlightenment.
It is the god Thoth (the god of writing and wisdom) who reconciles the two partners and their capacities, and puts the two together in the process of language (and magick). In fact, in some myths Thoth is the child of Horus and Set’s union, and he can be seen as analogous to the alchemical Mercurius, as expressed in the Jungian article I talked about here.
Anyway, give Don’s talk a listen, there is more in it there.
Set may be one of the earliest forms of the “Satan” figure, and as such I feel he is one of the gods that gives Satan a wider context, indeed a universal one. People discount “Satan” and Satanism as an inverted Christianity, as a reaction and a rebellion, but this is a shallow assessment of a profound phenomenon. If you look at the function and process that is evident in the Satan figure and its psychic underpinning, you will see something that has deep and universal roots, albeit not the kind of deep and universal that people are used to.
It’s funny just how much of a sense of relief I get from learning about the characteristics of Set, as if something were finally adding up to make sense of myself. But everyone has their “Set”, if they’ve gone (or been pushed) to a certain part of themselves.
There are a number of gods over the years that have been like much loved, aberrant fathers to me; and the bond, and the love, is never forgotten. Pan was I think the first, and he did inform part of my vision of the Sabbat God also. Rejected at birth, taken to be ugly, dismissed as “rustic”, yet the very personification of lust and raw creativity.
From the description of “the god against other gods” you would think that I might have had a connection with Loki, but in fact I have never found that connection with him myself. Instead I was quite overwhelmed by his compelling blood brother Odin, that most fatherly of Norse gods, yet also with complex trickster characteristics, and a wielder of “women’s magic”. Bringing the runes, and poetry, he is surely a master of the magick of language. The greater part of his nature remains unsaid.
And then there is ancient Set, Sutekh – blackened, implacable and esoteric, fierce father.
These inspire awe and love for me, each in their own way.
One of the words that Don ascribed to Set was “shey”, meaning “fate”, and part of the process and work associated with Set was to discover your fate or “destiny”. At this stage in my life (approaching late 50s) a word like “destiny” hums with things I feel and taste and know as my deepest values. Love, a husband’s embrace, the circle of a good life, the knowledge of the gods, desire, and the yielding to what I wish for, and what wishes for me. Magick.
Everyone is different. Everyone is the same. Mercurius separates and unites.
* 2nd June 2015 – these videos have been taken down off YouTube due to a copyright claim of Zeena Schrek, who hosted the talks and has ownership of the original recordings as I understand.
For no special reason (other maybe than that the last Uranus-Pluto square of the recent series occurred in the early hours of today) I found myself this morning thinking of the IAO formula while dozing in bed.
This is a rudimentary occult formula which I learnt from Israel Regardie books many years ago, but it is so useful that I think it is worth restating. It is based upon the Osirian scheme of the killing and resurrection of Osiris, in which Set (who is culturally demonized by this point) kills Osiris, and Isis brings him back to life.
The IAO formula as I learnt it stands for three phases, represented by Isis, Apophis and Osiris (thus IAO).
Isis here represents the innocent phase of experience or an undertaking, the honeymoon phase in a sense. All is well (at least we remember it that way), but it is also naive, unconscious, unrealized. Isis and Osiris are together in a natural state.
Apophis is the crisis phase, the toxic and challenging part of the experience, the failure, the poison, the long dark night. This is where Set kills Osiris and Isis grieves, but also where she must learn how to revive Osiris and restore him (and their relationship) to wholeness. Confusingly here Apophis and Set are not the same at all, though they share certain associations, such as storms and solar eclipses, and the northern night sky. But Apophis is an unremittingly destructive force, whereas Set was in his time recognized as a magnificent god, and this memory seems to live on in his position as the only one who can defend Ra against the monster Apophis in the Sun god’s daily journey under the Earth towards dawn.
Osiris is the resolved, realized phase, having gone through the disillusion, the destruction, the trials, we emerge transformed, more conscious, more self realized, more whole in self and relationship. Osiris is restored, but in his new form.
I think many people can recognize this basic patterning of experience, where we go through trials and experiences from which we not only learn, but which change us to make us more conscious, more whole, more completely ourselves, or in deeper relationship.
The astrological, qabalistic and tarot associations of IAO are:
I – Virgo, Yod, The Hermit – potential and nature
A – Scorpio, Nun, Death – transformation
O – Capricorn, Ayin, The Devil – realization and mastery
Crowley considered that the formula could be updated for the Aeon of Horus by adding the Hebrew letter Vau in front and behind, giving VIAOV (or FIAOF). Interestingly, Vau is associated with the Tarot card The Hierophant, and the sign of Taurus, thus completing the triad of earth signs in IAO (with Virgo and Capricorn), and being opposite the pivotal Scorpio of the formula (the “A”).
Set was also known as “The Bull of Ombos“, so is Set in the F’s or in the A, or both? Is Set our Cain, or our monster slaying hero? How does the story unravel? Who you gonna call?
Take a deep breath of the fragrant air. I can feel Summer licking at the gates of Spring.
I’ve been through what is quite an awesome journey since last Winter, in terms of personal unfoldment, and accepting aspects of my own path and nature. None of this would have been possible without my husband, who is so much the better half of my world that he really is my path. In some sense we always journey together, and his acceptance of me is all the validation I need. Whereas I measure and process and craft and test (and think too much), he seems to just go straight to it and be there already. I’ve learnt to listen to him and his way of being. I used to think I was listening already, but I wasn’t aware of how much of me didn’t, so I’ve learnt to listen more consciously.
I guess I’ve been working on something in myself, back and forth, since the Summer of 2009, when I had a resurgence of appreciation of Thelema and Crowley. Phil was right there, encouraging me, and liking The Beast for his own direct reasons, in his own way. I love Phil, not just ’cause he’s my husband and my life partner, but because I feel so proud of everything he is. He doesn’t care what people think, and he does what he wants, and he knows he’s as good as anyone. I have to learn that lesson, but I’ve really been working on it. The kind of Pagan Phil is, it’s the perfect antidote to all the “court mentality” of some of our imaginary kings and queens and priestesses and politicians. No big deal (kinda the point really), but it’s really good to be free.
Last October something did come home when I wrote this entry to my blog, looking back on the episode of Maat magick which had preceded my breakdown and break through spiritually in 1990. It isn’t quite done to admit any kind of mental instability in magic, and indeed you need to be pretty strong and resilient to go through some processes, but at the same time there is an undoubted kinship between the two areas which may leave some people very uncomfortable. While you do not want people to suffer the awful losses of mental illness (and any responsible person will guard against this for both themselves and others), it remains that there are areas of both which can only be distinguished from each other by where they are going, rather than what they are. “Facing the shadow”, or encountering the “dark night of the soul” are experiences of failure as profound as anyone could subjectively imagine. They are not symbolic dress rehearsals but, as spiritual experiences, the manifest beneficence which underlies them makes of them a healing and refashioning which defies description. It’s appropriate in some ways that I wrote that blog post after I had completed the elemental reflections that I was engaged with last Summer, ending with fire, as the crisis can be compared to the crowning of elemental existence with spirit (even if the process felt like you were going off the rails and dying!).
The first magical operation I did after my breakthrough (as far as I remember) was a little Hoodoo ritual of Michael Bertiaux’s, which was quite trippy and opened me up dramatically at a certain level, but I had to say a friendly goodbye to the spirits involved after about three nights of strange sleep, crystal clear inner visuals, and the sight of astral black fire which to this day remains one of the most bizarre things I’ve seen, due to its dense blackness and fluid flame motion. Second chakra felt kinda sore by then. It felt entirely benevolent but apparently wasn’t right for me. An intentional and affectionate goodbye, and the spirits were gone on their way.
Both Nema’s Maat Current and Michael Bertiaux had turned up in Kenneth Grant’s “Cults of the Shadow”, a book I had come across while working in a warehouse in Limehouse in 1979 (literally, I was packing the books for mail order). Kenneth Grant had been a deep but mystifying inspiration to me throughout a good deal of my twenties. His exposition of Crowley’s work in “The Magical Revival” was an epiphany for me, and his introduction of Austin Osman Spare through his “Oracles and Images” book was immensely liberating. He also introduced an illuminating exposition of what he termed “the left hand path”¹, a term which was often used elsewhere in a condemnatory sense (an esoteric cross between degenerate, pervert and criminal) but which Grant validated and took back to its Indian tantric roots.
The main reason I bring up Grant is because, along with a renewed affection for the person I was in my early and late twenties, I’ve come to remember how important a vision of the Left Hand Path was for me, and how much it has shaped me spiritually. I had not followed a conventional path by anybody’s criteria, the central part being art with magical intention or inspiration, a very personal practice that sought to both explore the self and its inward worlds, and open doors to other places. Spare was my biggest inspiration, but I also felt a great kinship with the Australian artist Rosaleen Norton. That was buttressed by Crowley and more conventional material from the likes of Israel Regardie.
I was in a position though where I needed to explore conventional (“right hand path”) material to gain psychological strengths that I lacked (to “grow up” basically), but “the way” was clearly left hand path to my view and sensibility. This was further complicated by the fact that, as a gay man, conventional right hand path material could not help me reach psychological strength and maturity, as it did not accept my valid existence. Grant’s presentation of the left hand path, for that matter, seemed to skirt my existence also in his overwhelming focus on heterosexuality and an objectified vision of the magickal power of “woman”. How dated that use of the term “woman” seems now (and it was irksome then), but I believe it can actually be seen to underly quite a few physical gender obsessions within neopaganism, like we never got past 1960 or something. I believe in “Cults of the Shadow” at one point Grant also puts forth a theory to explain homosexual oral and anal acts in terms of chakra imbalances. There was so much fascinating material and inspiration, but nowhere to stand. One of the reasons I felt so close to Spare was that with the ecstatic content of his work, there was no judgement. Also, with both Crowley and Spare the individual was sovereign, and there at least there was sanctuary, and an exultant one.
Of all the gods I saw mentioned in my readings of Thelema, the one that stands out is the Egyptian Set. You couldn’t find a more demonized figure to western esotericism really, as the later myths that came down cast him as a cosmic Cain, and what he does to Osiris there is a kinda Sweeny Todd study in mythological forensics. But the ambiguous, complex figure of Set is much older than that story, and he was indeed worshipped and accorded great honour in his time. He could never be quite kicked out anyway, as he remains on the solar barque at the crucial moment when Ra is threatened by the serpent monster Apep, and there Set is, the only one capable of defeating the monster and letting the Sun go on to rise again. It looks like later ages couldn’t live with him, but they couldn’t quite live without him either.
My feelings for Set have proved to be deep and abiding, sleeping at the back of my being like the peaceful, low hum of bees at rest, waiting for over twenty years for me to turn around and notice. Words do fail me here, but I can add that this is another place where Phil has just understood immediately and without question. There is a beautiful and tantalising exposition of the nature of Set in Katon Shual’s “Sexual Magick“, as a god of ambiguity and confusion, sexuality (especially non-procreative sexuality) and sexual magick, and the many formed reality (and unreality) of gender, as well as being a god of foreigners and frontiers. This book has some wonderful treasures within it, such as the account of Moses Long’s experiments as a 17th century conjuror in the field of sexual magick in “the conjuration of Angels”. There were things in this, the latest, revised edition of “Sexual Magick” that had me laughing with recognition, and the author treats the subject with great kindness and humanity. I recommend this book very highly.
The chapter dealing with “The Mysteries of Seth” features a section which takes on the form of a communication from the god in response to questions, and I was really struck by how much this reminded me of some of my old inspiration Richard Gardner’s writing in books like “The Tarot Speaks” and “Evolution Through the Tarot”, where he tried to let the images of the cards speak through him. Richard, like Katon Shual, rated Wilhelm Reich, and though the time he was coming from had a strong sense of the gender binary, he would have been the first to throw off anything that he saw as closing people’s minds to the realities of sex, sexuality, love and consciousness. Richard had enough of the benign trickster to him to be a little god of confusion himself, but reading that section of Katon’s book, I almost felt like I was hearing the same voice at times.
Inevitably, if you follow the path of magick, you follow a road to a place which has been culturally outlawed for a very long time. We sometimes persuade ourselves that we have come a long way since the Victorian era, but our collective life still cherishes ignorance and a repression of love and sex under so many of its polished, professional or sentimental surfaces. But still people have the courage to follow that other call. It can be done, and anyone who has the heart and soul for it should follow their heart.
Some of the things I remember from Kenneth Grant’s exposition of the 93 current² and its aquarian implications were the shift in the formula of magic from ritual (Virgo-Pisces) to direct astral magic, and especially the use of sexuality and the sexual current (Leo-Aquarius). The other was the sovereignty of the individual. Grant could sound rather daunting and clinical at times, rather unfeeling, but I’ve come to understand that the actual work is anything but that. I am neither the thelemic hero nor the scarlet woman, and the stereotypes don’t really speak to me or my experience. I am exactly the post-punk hippie tree hugger that I am, with a husband that means the whole world to me, living happily in our home in East London. But I actually now recognise that, as the person I am, I have largely followed this path, through an emerging predisposition rather than conscious design. With my husband, and in completely idiosyncratic ways, I have left behind ritual of all but the simplest form, and focussed on sexuality and eroticism, natural trance states arising from the body and emotions, and congress with our beloved deities and spirits. And that is a very loving, practical, authentic and nourishing experience.
Of course terms like “left hand path” and “right hand path” are categories in our heads, but I’m happy to acknowledge the strange, beautiful and liberating garden I once found under the left hand sign. Though the path has been a long one, I realize I still live in that garden, and you can live in that garden with love.
¹ a reasonable jumping off point discussion of the terms “right” and “left hand path” can be found here.
² ie of Thelema