Eye of the Storm: Braving the Akem-Shield of Sutekh Great of Strength
NOTE: This feature was originally published on the Icons of Kemet Wordpress blog on September 14, 2017 as Eye of the Storm: Braving the Aegis of Sutekh Great of Strength.
“…Set at all times, while not necessarily a “nice” divinity, performs a necessary service in the universe- that of the very masculine and sometimes violent force of change. In Kemetic myth, Ra acknowledges Set’s positive qualities as a destroyer of unnecessary things and isfet (the Kemetic concept of mindless, unforgivable evil) by appointing Set as the guardian of the Boat of Millions of Years. The reason given for Ra’s favor? Set is “the only one strong enough to do it.”
– Rev. Tamara L. Siuda in The Ancient Egyptian Prayerbook, pages 49-50.
“Set is a murderer, absolutely, and that act was full of pain for everyone involved. However, the land of the dead would have no deities in it had it not been for Set’s willingness to step forward and use His mighty strength to tear down the barriers and kill an immortal god so He could be king there. He is the king slayer and the kingmaker, with all of the attendant cognitive dissonance, discomfort, and reality-facing that entails….If He was comfortable to confront He would not be who He is. He is not evil; He is the only one strong enough, and willing enough to take the blame, to stop evil.”
– Rev. Tamara L. Siuda, public discussion on Facebook on June 1, 2017.
We think we know Him. He is Set, Seth, Suty, Setekh, Setesh, Sutekh, that “Red One” of violent temperament and intemperate behavior. He is the God Whose very birth was announced by tearing open His mother’s body, and Whose deeds have been overshadowed by the gruesome murder and dismemberment of His own brother. The family drama that ensued is filled with unimaginable brutality, being the struggle of the murdered God’s wife (Auset, Isis) and son (Heru, Horus) to reclaim the throne of Kemet and restore the rightful order of creation, Ma’at. This is a drama that presents the God Set as the ultimate source of chaos and wrongdoing, as the bellicose adversary Who operates in a manner one can only describe as Machiavellian.
In the cycle of family myths that have come down to us in pieces, the God Set is the “black sheep”
of the clan of Geb and Nut descended from Ra, and resorts to the murder of His favored brother Ausir (or Osiris) in order to claim the kingship of the Two Lands. Here begins a blood feud that occupies the realm of the Gods for nearly 100 years, and includes what have come to be known as the Contendings of Heru and Seth. These are the myth cycles in which Set (as the murderer of His brother Ausir) and Heru the Son of Auset and Ausir battle to gain ascendancy one over the other. Aside from using violence and cunning against His nephew, Set attempts to use His own brand of sexual prowess in order to subjugate the young Heru, and thus demonstrate the youngster’s inept ability to govern; thus Set becomes the embodiment of deviant sexuality together with all behaviors that operate outside the social norms.
But there is a different Set that emerges when one peels back the incomplete textual layers of this deeply controversial god, and lets go of the contemporary moralistic judgments so often leveled against this strikingly powerful deity. It is very difficult to discuss deities like Set without resulting to our contemporary ethical frameworks in order to arrive at the quick verdict that sees Set as wholly evil- a fratricide, a brawler, a sexually aggressive deity with tendencies towards homosexual rape, and a bloodthirsty creature possessing a propensity for total war. But these are- in my opinion- vast oversimplifications brought out by minds unwilling or incapable of comprehending the ancient African, Near Eastern and Mediterranean religious minds.
The Kemetic (or ancient Egyptian) world is inhabited by deities, demons, and spirits of bewildering and often terrifying appearances. Household gods like Bes and Taweret, for example, are venerated as fierce protectors of women, children and domestic life, and yet these same deities are known for Their wild and often violent demeanor. It is precisely because of Their underlying aggression that such deities were recognized as duly equipped sources of divine defense against potential threats experienced during childbirth or on the domestic front in the form of diseases. The God Bes can manifest as a comical bandy legged dwarf banging a tambourine, but He can just as easily appear as a ferocious creature- part dwarf part lion- Who eats or vomits snakes and brandishes massive knives.
The Goddess Sekhmet, the lioness-headed spouse of Creator God Ptah, is a closer match to the all-
consuming violence expressed in the mythos of the God Set. Here is a goddess Who relishes the near annihilation of the human race in one cycle of myths in which the aging Ra calls out His “Eye” (sometimes Sekhmet, sometimes Hwt-Her or Hathor) to punish humankind for its rebellion against the Gods. Because of Her bloody exploits and punishing, warlike nature, Sekhmet was rightly feared as a goddess just as likely to harm humanity as to help it; and yet it was precisely because of Her explosive and destructive nature that She became known as a Protectress of truth and righteousness, and a goddess Who defended the worthy against injustice. Another aspect to the dichotomy of Sekhmet is Her reputation as a bringer of plague and disease, which could be unleashed upon humanity indiscriminately, and included desert storms. However, the Egyptians recognized that because the Goddess could manifest and control these terrors, She could also cure them, and because of this Sekhmet became the patroness of physicians and healers, and was invoked to guard against all forms of pestilence.
Time and again one comes across such dichotomies in the myth cycles and hymns to Kemetic deities; these seemingly irreconcilable characteristics of deities who, on the one hand, come forth to help or serve humankind, and, on the other, to serve chastisement or outright destruction. The Netjeru or Deities of Kemet are vastly complex divine beings Whose legions of forms, names and epithets reveal the danger in placing simple moral labels like “right” and “wrong” or “good” and “evil” upon Them. Using such ethical terms places supernatural beings- who are not, after all, members of human society, and are not, therefore, subject to man-made laws or social norms- within subjective frameworks that will always change from culture to culture, place to place, and from epoch to epoch. It is human beings who are subject to the laws and ethics their various societies create and enforce, but always above such changeable constructs are the eternal Gods, Whose actions as expressed in Their cycles of myths often belie human tastes and conventions.
Lord Set is one such deity Who seems to go against the very grain of any form of social order recognizable to us. He violates the sacred bonds of family by murdering His own brother, Whom He drowns or dismembers (or both, depending on which version of the myth cycle one consults), and then makes war against His sister and Her son in a lengthy saga of hostility that disrupts the well-ordered machine of divine creation.
Extraordinarily, this same deity is also called upon to champion the cause of cosmic order as the defender of the Ark of Ra, which travels the Underworld nightly in order to face the serpent-demon Apep. Apep is the ultimate enemy, not only of the Gods, but of the earth, human race, and the cosmos entire. Apep’s sole purpose, it would seem, is the consummate dissolution of the Gods’ creation, and it is to this end that he works ceaselessly. It is the role of Set as the Defender of the Ark of Ra to deflect each attack of Apep in order to preserve the cosmic order established by the Creator Gods at the beginning of creation, and Set is the only god Whose violent powers are capable of accomplishing this.
In this truth we find one of the fascinating aspects of the ancient spiritual mind; and that is the truth that the same deity who is dangerous enough and powerful enough to upset the cosmic order by His exploits on the earth can also be the defense system and remedy to potential cosmic disorder by an equally violent enemy. Lord Set may have murdered His brother, and He may have made war on His sister and nephew, however, it is because of His terrible powers- capable of murdering another god and creating cosmic disturbances- that the God Set, when He chooses to, becomes the greatest force for protection and order our universe can know. In standing up against the cataclysmic actions of Apep, Set demonstrates His ultimate nature as an instrument of defense on the side of the Gods and Their fragile creation. Set’s other deeds, too, need to be seen in this same light.
Set’s victimization of His own family garners a great deal of press, and yet the outcome of these terrible events seems entirely lost on some minds. The demonization of Set might at first appear well deserved, for He drowns and dismembers His own brother out of apparent jealousy, and, not being content to wrest the throne of Kemet from His dead brother’s rightful keep, strives violently to prevent His nephew Heru from claiming His inheritance of divine kingship. But myth cycles are not one-sided affairs; they are the keepers of multiple truths simultaneously, and need not to be judged by the first impressions of moral outrage. The entire cycle of myths devoted to Set’s family epic are concerned on the one hand with the order of divine kingship in this world, and, perhaps more importantly, with the exercise of sacred kingship and custodianship in the Other World.
Before the induction of Ausir into the Duat (or Other World) after His death, the inhabitants of the land of the dead dwell in a state of confusion within a nigh-perpetual darkness. Their only relief from this terror comes during the brief spell of golden light cast off from the passage of Ra during His nightly journey through the Duat. From this cycle there seems to be no chance of respite, until the God Ausir is resurrected from the state of death into the Duat as its divine sovereign, Who forever after takes custodianship over the souls of the dead as judge and beneficent ruler. The Kingdom of Ausir in the Duat is the home of the Blessed Dead, those Righteous and worthy souls whose earthly lives merit a place among the Gods. All Egyptians strove to achieve resurrection after death and entrance into the Kingdom of Ausir, and these things were possible because of that unthinkable act of violence perpetrated by the God Set.
The catalyst of the entire cycle of myths of the family of Ausir, Auset and Heru is in fact the God Set, Who brings the God Ausir to His fate and purpose by consigning Him to the Duat. The means Set uses are not as significant as their effect, which is that Ausir is forced to relinquish His kingship in this material world in order to become divine sovereign of that Other World populated by the numberless souls of the dead in need; for kingship, that is, right rule and right conduct in governance, is needed not only in the realm of physical being, but, more significantly, is necessary in the spiritual state behind the terrestrial world.
The Duat embodies the entire state of creation within or behind the mortal sphere, and that sphere of existence far outlasts the limited span of life in the temporal world. In this spiritual condition, the force of Cosmic Order and Justice, Ma’at, holds sway above all, and is the prerogative of the God Ausir as Divine Judge and King of the Blessed Dead. It is Ausir Who looks into the hearts of all souls in order to determine their purity and Rightness (Ma’a), and He Who bestows the boons of resurrection and immortality to those who lived lives of moral worth upon the earth.
Without being cut down by the God Set, Ausir would have retained His earthly throne, leaving a continued vacancy for judge, guide, and caretaker of the dead in the Duat. Thus the role of Set in the fulfillment of a much larger, cosmic framework cannot be overlooked or underestimated. The question in approaching the mythos of this god and His family is not one of “right” and “wrong” or “good” and “evil” in a human social sense, but is instead a question of how each deity operates according to the higher purpose or harmony being emphasized in the myths. The actions of Set in His family drama are a means to an end, and that end becomes the proper establishment of the God Ausir as Judge and Sovereign in the Duat, and the passing down of His throne to the next generation of earthly kings. Though initially manifesting as pain and suffering and confusion, the cosmic result of Set’s actions is the new order of divine kingship for the living and the dead, and the development of the God Heru into a champion of Justice.
It was on May 25, 2017, on Pesedjentiu or New Moon Day, that I embarked on my mission to craft for Lord Set a cult image worthy of His awesome power; but equally as important to me was the creation of an earthly vessel whose form and qualities could serve as a manifestation of the Netjer’s noble attributes as a representative of the Royal Lineage of Ra. My complaint with many contemporary representations of Set is that they tend to fall prey to what I call the *dark lord syndrome*, portraying Lord Set as a brand of satanic bad boy or Kemetic devil. This type of image- equating the God Set with notions of the adversarial evil present in the Abrahamic religions- is, in my opinion, a carryover from monotheism, and represents the moral baggage we’ve inherited from the religions of the book. Whatever else He may be, the God Set is not Satan, and He is not evil.
On a par with other Kemetic deities of a martial or defensive nature (Sekhmet, Neith, Montu, Anhur, Maahes and Sobek come to mind here), Lord Set is ultimately the instigator of change or transformation, and this process is often a violent one, described in the mythos as a rending, tearing, or cutting down of life. Very similar to the Goddess Sekhmet, Set appears as a terrifying catalyst when change is not only called for, but mandatory for the next phase of life and creation to begin. In the short term, such action reads as outright destruction for its own sake, and is therefore morally objectionable from a human perspective. But change does not apologize or ask for permission; it manifests as part of the natural order of the created world, and is a natural part of the cycle of life; and many of the Netjeru embody these forces actively at work in the forms of Their cult images, epithets, and mythos. Set is certainly one of these, however, He, like all other Netjeru, performs other functions aside from those recognized as His primary roles.
We tend to think of Set as entirely violent, destructive, vengeful or bloodthirsty, and yet one of His most prominent roles in ancient times was as a Binder or Uniter of the Two Lands with the God Heru. These two Gods, Who elsewhere may be seen as adversaries, are in fact engaged in a sacred dance of weaving together the warp and the weft of Kemet’s halves; the lotus of Upper Kemet and papyrus of Lower Kemet, which create the activity of sema-tawy or “Union of the Two Lands”. By taking up a vital role in this cosmic action, Lord Set is in fact bringing together the disparate aspects of the created world and joining them together as a harmonious whole. The fact that it is Set in this position, and not some other deity(1), is an indication of just how significant His role in creation was understood to be by the ancients.
Some may view Set’s inclusion in the sema-tawy motif as strictly one of representation of polar opposites, since Lord Set’s dominion is Southern or Upper Kemet, while Lord Heru’s is Northern or Lower Kemet; thus it would be natural for these two deities to appear together in the heraldic device signifying the reconciliation or unity of the Two Lands. But I believe that there is an even deeper significance to Lord Set’s appearance with Heru as a “Uniter of the Two Lands”. That significance is Cosmic Order and Rightness, Ma’at, which requires the operation of creation according to the principles established at the initiation of creation.
Set is sometimes said to be against Ma’at when He murders His brother Ausir, and in this instance we are seeing Ma’at on its micro level, which has to do with our view of what is just and humane on a social level. Murder is never acceptable, and its consequences can hardly be seen as “good”; however, there is the larger, macro view of Ma’at, which understands that the proper operation of creation includes death, dissolution and destruction as part of the natural process of creation. These things clear the way for the next stages of life, which result from the great change brought about by sudden violent action.
The sema-tawy motif, while symbolically representing the Two Countries of Upper and Lower Kemet, is also a device embodying the dichotomy of creation as seen through the lens of the two gods Whose very actions define this creative-destructive, life-death affirming dance in which all created things are engaged. We can no more deny the facts of birth and creation than we can the phenomena of death and decay, which are all woven together in the fabric of the created world; and it is Lord Set Who is the instigator, the catalyst, the propeller, and the protagonist of the change that compels the machine of life and creation forward. That is precisely why He stands with the God Heru as a “Binder of the Two Lands”.
The Aegis of Sutekh Great of Strength is the second panel in the Lords of Valor Triptych, and forms
an important contribution to my Aegis Series of icons. After months of prayer, meditation, ritual activities and offerings to the Netjeru, I have come to the conclusion that these panels are part of a system of spiritual technology for the defense of those who are actively engaged in the work of the Gods. On this point I may not elaborate further, other than to say that out of all the Netjeru Who have stepped forward to take part in this project, it was Lord Set Who let it be known that His presence is most vital to the aims of the Aegis Panels, and that His quality of protection is what is needed in our world at this time.
Suty nakht aah pehty neb pet sety, “Set the Mighty is great of strength (as) Sky-Lord (Who) Begets” read the medu (hieroglyphs) on the left hand side of the God. These epithets were very carefully selected, as always, after an intense period of prayer and meditation on the vast array of epithets and descriptions given to Lord Set in the historical record(2). There are numerous ways to write Set’s name in the medu, thus numerous ways to pronounce His name(3); but the form I have used, Suty, a variant of Sutekh, is not too dissimilar from the words setu, “arrow”, and seti, “shoot”, which is identical in pronunciation- and similar in its writing in hieroglyphs- to the word seti, “to shoot seed”, “ejaculate”, “impregnate” or “beget”(4). As placed in this icon, the epithets of Set form a play on sound and symbolism or meaning; for the God Set or Suty is the God Who shoots (seti) arrows (setuw), Who stands behind kings to guide their arm in archery, and Who, as a Netjer of rampant male sexuality, is known for His aggressive and potent sexual appetite. The *Set animal*, which is seen in its complete form four times in the Aegis of Sutekh, bears its distinctive arrow-like tail, which hints at the martial nature of this god Who is known to give kings ferocious strength in battle against the enemies of Kemet.
Behind the head of Set I have placed a rebus forming an epithet saying Sutekh-pehty- shuwyt (or
shuwt) or “Set is the shade (or shadow) of strength (or valor)”. The origin of this epithet- insofar as I know- is contemporary and local, having been given to me by Lord Set during a walking meditation in the northwestern desert of Utah. This is a landscape my husband and I frequent continuously, and in regards to communion with the God Set it could not be a more appropriate setting. Lord Set has always been associated with the desert, or “Red Land” (deshret) as the ancient Egyptians called it; and the northwestern desert of Utah is very red, dominated by deep amber and red ocher-colored peaks, which for miles loom above the famous Bonneville Salt Flats. This is a truly Setian landscape, startling in its stark beauty, which in summer scintillates with the hostile waves of heat rising up from the Salt Flats. It was here in the presence of one of the red pyramidal peaks that Lord Set gave me a vision of Him in His wild animal form standing on the heads of two leopards. From His back rose up the ostrich feather sunshade carried in religious processions by the ancients, and in my heart’s ears I heard the words “I am Sutekh-pehty-shuwyt.”
This epithet for me denotes a local form of the God Set resident in the mountains and salt flats of the northwestern Utah desert, and yet, like all epithets given to Kemetic deities, it can also reference more universal or cosmic associations. The form of the sunshade- with its tall ostrich plumes- is often used to denote the presence of a deity or divine king, but always embodies the auspicious power or presence of a great being. The sacred boat shrines used by Kemetic priests to carry the cult images of the Gods are shielded by long-handled sunshades of gold with multicolored plumes. These are badges of a god’s power and influence, and carry with them the understanding that the god’s spiritual presence is present. However, the sunshade or shuwt is also used in the medu (hieroglyphs) to denote the seryt or military standard(5), which of course would have special significance in relation to Set as a god of the military and martial prowess.
But the shuwt-sunshade most especially represents that aspect of Gods or mortals that may best be described as a form of spiritual influence or existence connected with the physical body, and yet capable of projecting itself from the body, just as any material body or object may cast its shadow on the ground. The casting of this shuwt or shadow- in deities- is a manifestation of the god’s tangible power which has the ability to cross thresholds and boundaries; thus the use of divine sunshades in religious processions during which the cult image of the god crosses over the threshold of the sanctuary and out into the wider world. Sunshades, portable cult objects, and even temple sanctuaries themselves may constitute forms of a deity’s shadow, which have the ability to affect people and the natural world with Their power(6).
In the case of the God Set, He may rightly be called a shuwyt or shuwt of Ra, that is, a shadow of the Sun-God that is projected ahead of Ra in order to defeat His enemies. It is Set Who stands at the prow of the Ark of Ra as the valiant knight poised with His spear against the serpent-demon Apep, and He Who preserves the sacred maintenance of creation embodied in the Family of Ra.
The presence of Set denotes the presence of Ra as the Defender of Ma’at or Cosmic Order, thus He is the “sunshade” of the Gods, the “shadow” of protective power cast off from the body of the Creator. The Aegis of Sutekh Great of Strength houses the Shadow of the God Set as the Divine Protector and Representative of the Royal Family of Ra. It is a cult image which itself behaves as a shuwt of the Netjer, for its own physical shadow is the living presence of Set as it crosses the threshold of the material world. In its gold, gemstones, crystals and pigments it holds the spiritual potency of the God, which shines or casts from it a radiance that permeates the space around it. This affect, energetic, visual and physical, is the function of the shuwt as a metaphysical body.
I would further define the epithet Sutekh-pehty-shuwyt (pronounced soo-tech pek-tee shoo-yeet) with the following:
“It is Suty, Sutekh, Setesh Who stands as the Shadow, the Sacred Image, the Spirit of valor! Sutekh is the Shield, the Screen, the Safeguard of divine strength, and the very image of valor is Sutekh! Sutekh is the Shade of the powerful, the valiant, the Sacred, and His valor is the Shade of true power. With His strength the God Sutekh preserves, shields, and shades, and with His Shadow He becomes the protection of the Divine!”
On August 5, 2017 we celebrated the holy Wep-Ronpet or “Opening of the Year”, “New Year’s” Day festival, the heliacal rising of the star Sopdet (Sirius) and the official start of the Kemetic year. Before the New Year sun mounted our desert sky, my husband and I gathered some of our temple’s holiest treasures and made our pilgrimage to the center of the Bonneville Salt Flats. Along with our kar-shrine containing the God Ptah, we brought the completed Aegis of Djehuty and the Souls of Khmennu and the half-completed Aegis of Sutekh Great of Strength.
All Kemetic temples celebrate the Khnem-Aten or “Union with the Sun” on New Year’s Day, which signifies the renewal of the earth and the powers of the Gods throughout creation. The central deity (or deities) of each temple is removed from Their secluded sanctuary and placed where the unobstructed rays of the rising New Year sun may fall upon Their living image. Other cult objects such as standards, wands, sacred stones, and all items especially venerated by the God of the temple are left out in the open air as the New Year sun rises and reveals the newly rejuvenated earth. We made our procession with the icons, and placed the faces of Lords Ptah, Djehuty and Set facing east to receive the Wep-Ronpet blessing of Ra.
The solar radiation ceremony at sunrise on New Year’s morning is considered the holiest blessing cult objects can receive, and for this reason I was anxious to bestow this momentous event to the first two icon panels of the Aegis Series. It was a marvelous moment when the lightening lapis sky was transformed by a burst of glowing pink streaks, which quickly erupted over the desert mountains and spilled onto the glistening white salt flakes blanketing the Bonneville Salt Flats. We watched while we intoned the Kemetic invocation of Ra as the golden-copper face and finely gilt reliefs of the Aegis of Sutekh leapt to life with fiery color, the platinum White Crown on Set’s head beaming silver-white in the sunrise.
People often ask me why my icons take so long to craft. We live in a society where instant gratification is taken for granted as a way of life. Everything in our modern consumer culture is governed by it; fast food, instant messaging, texting, dating, and entertainment. We expect everything we want to be delivered to us at the tap of a screen, and when it’s not, we move on to something that will. The sacred work I do as an iconographer is built on a foundation of painstaking craftsmanship using materials and techniques that take time; however, there is also another aspect of my work that requires patience, and that is its cultic requirements. These are ancient ritual standards for purity and empowerment that operate primarily according to a lunar calendar.
Each lunar month has its New (pesedjentiu), First Quarter (denat), Full (tep semdet) and Last Quarter (denat) observances, which are each marked by specific prayers and offering rites that bestow sanctification to the cult image as it progresses. Added to these primary lunar observances are the numerous feast days of the Netjeru of the Temple that occur throughout the year. These too must be punctuated by the appropriate prayers and offerings, which not only please the Gods, but also petition Them for Their acceptance of each cult image as a true cult image fit for divine habitation. These celestial events also govern when each phase of a cult image may begin and end.
Of course, it is not always possible for me to begin or end a particular phase of an icon on the actual lunar day ideal for it; there are technical challenges and setbacks, but in general I strive to align each phase of an icon’s creation with the ritually appropriate time specified by the lunar cycle. Through dreams and divination the Gods make clear Their intentions to the iconographer, and these can include *extra days* or *rites above the moon*, that is to say, ritual actions required by the deity on days or times that are beyond the typical. Each deity has its own unique requirements for establishing right relationship with it, and each cult image is a unique vessel tied to a specific aspect or aspects of a deity’s personality; and it is for these reasons that the time frame required to complete an icon may be extended beyond what is normal.
The Lunar Festival rites granted to each icon do not take place in my studio, but rather in locations out on the desert where the icons may be exposed to the spiritual powers of the local deities and land spirits; but also, and equally as important, where the icons may receive the direct influence of the lunar and stellar lights. I have given the name Khnem-I’ah, “Union with the Moon” to the Lunar Radiation Rite, which entails placing the cult image directly on the desert floor beneath the light of the Full Moon so that the deity is bathed in it and may “drink” it. The Khnem-I’ah is the most powerful lunar ritual, and is always performed beneath the auspices of the God Djehuty (Thoth) or Djehuty-I’ah, Djehuty as the lunar disk. The icon panel is circumambulated, “fed” with copious food offerings and libations of alcohol (beer or wine), and venerated with a chanted litany of the deity’s names and epithets. But there are other lunar observances, such as the Sennut or “Six-Day” Feast, which marks the beginning of I’ah Meh Wedjat, “Filling the Wedjat Eye”. On this day- continuing until Full Moon Day- the God Djehuty, together with His retinue of 14 Netjeru, replaces the missing portions of light to the Moon until it is whole (wedja) again, that is, until it becomes the restored Netjer of complete (wedja) power.
All of these observances- and many more besides- constitute a vast ritual program for each icon, through which two-dimensional images crafted from earthly materials are united with the vital powers of the living Gods, and are thus transformed from terrestrial into celestial manifestations. It is not enough for any artisan or craftsperson to simply make the form of a deity, because a thing that merely looks like a deity but has not been enlivened by the Divine Presence is not a deity, and has no internal power whatsoever. An image that has been made to resemble a certain deity’s iconography may inspire; it may please the eyes, and it may grant the observer a certain feeling of connection to the deity they believe it represents; however, without being “fed” the appropriate cultic rites, and crafted from its inception through the exacting and ancient standards of ritual purity and ritual identification with the deity, no image, however beautiful, will actually contain the living power of the deity, nor will it be able to function as a true cult image.
A true cult image must be literally enlivened or “made to live” through the activities (iruw) of the cult (irit ikhet), which do not begin after the image has already been crafted, but rather before the image has even materialized. A “working” or “awake” cult image is first established through a direct relationship with the deity in question, which always begins with prayers accompanied by offerings. The type and number of offerings is always directed by the deity through a process of dream incubation and divination, through which the deity makes known the conditions required by Them in order for the image to be crafted. Cult images cannot be made without the direct permission and participation of the deity, because the entire purpose of a cult image, and what gives it its holiness, is engagement with the vital power of the living Gods; and for engagement to occur, the deity must first desire to engage and be engaged, and Their cooperation must be given to the iconographer who will be making a material copy of that deity’s spiritual body. Once these fundamental conditions are met, the iconographer must still meet the legion of other cultic requirements established through what I refer to as cultic precedent.
Cultic precedent presupposes that there is a right way to engage the Gods and create an active relationship with Them through sacred space and the activities offered therein. How do we know what the right way is? As Kemetics we are the recipients of a vast legacy of temple documents, sacred texts, treatises and images that each contain valuable pieces of information concerning how our Gods were engaged for thousands of years, and the procedures by which our Ancestors achieved this. By studying such texts as the Daily Ritual, we have spelled out for us clearly the very words, ritual gestures and offerings that were utilized by our Ancestors. Such texts make it clear that specific ritual gestures, prayers, and rites of purification were long-established ceremonial forms for maintaining right relationship with the Gods. This religious legacy constitutes cultic precedent, giving us a very ancient and time-tested framework for engaging the living Gods and ensuring our right relationship with Them.
August 21, 2017 marked yet another auspicious stage in the creation and sanctification of the Aegis of Sutekh Great of Strength when the United States witnessed the first total eclipse visible across the entire contiguous US since June 8, 1918 (7). Symbolically, solar eclipses have special significance for the God Set, for He is the Defender of the Ark of Ra, the divine champion Who stands at the prow of the solar boat- javelin in hand- to repel the enemy Apep. A solar eclipse is indicative of the ascendancy of Apep over the sacred light of Ra, but it is also an opportunity for Lord Set to be recognized and invoked as the force of Cosmic Order (Ma’at) over Apep. Thus we made a pilgrimage to our favorite city, Salt Lake City, Utah, carrying the Aegis of Sutekh with us in His temporary lockable “shrine”. From the top of one of Sugarhouse Park’s many hills, surrounded by maples, spruce, fir and pines, we shared the Aegis of Sutekh with the sky at the height of the eclipse, and claimed Salt Lake City for the Lord Set. It may seem strange to some that we would do such a thing, being that Salt Lake City is the known administrative and devotional center for the LDS Church; but speaking from a vantage of geography, the Great Salt Lake, the largest salt water lake in the Western Hemisphere, places the surrounding territory, including Salt Lake City, under the aegis of the God Set, Who is known to be associated with the sea, and, by extension, large bodies of salt water.
As if to solidify His spiritual presence as Lord and Divine Patron of Salt Lake City, Set arranged through a series of synchronicities to have His Aegis blessed in that city by the hands of Her Holiness Rev. Tamara Siuda (AUS), the Nisut or Sacral King of the Kemetic Orthodox Faith. I have known Her Holiness for a number of years, and she has been a deeply influential peer, guide and friend to my sacred mission as a Kemetic iconographer. From the very beginning of my work on the Aegis of Sutekh, She was present as a source of blessing and guidance, often sharing her insights with me concerning how Lord Set operates in the lives of His devotees, and how He could be making His presence known through my creation of this icon.
On the evening of May 31, the day before Denat or First Quarter Moon, my husband and I were hiking on the desert trails near the red mountains behind our home, when a large bullsnake crossed back and forth three times on the trail directly in front of us. Immediately before the bullsnake had appeared on the trail, Brent and I had offered prayers to Lord Set out loud, asking Him for a sign of His blessings. I immediately thought of contacting Her Holiness for Her interpretation of what this could mean if it was a sign sent by the Gods, so I texted Tamara and asked her for a reading. Her answer was clear; that this bullsnake crossing our path was a sign of protection from the Gods Set and Wadjet- in Her manifestation as the Royal Cobra Who defends the Lineage of the Gods. It was also a powerful blessing for my Aegis of Sutekh Great of Strength, indicating that it was a container of the apotropaic presence of Lord Set.
It was with some excitement and anticipation that my husband and I drove to Salt Lake City on First Quarter Moon Day on August 29th for our dinner meeting with Her Holiness. Lord Set had instructed me via a dream that we were to bring His Aegis with us to receive Her Holiness’ blessing, which He said was part of its awakening/ sanctification process. When the moment finally arrived, my heart leapt, not only because I was meeting a treasured friend and spiritual teacher in person after having known her online and by phone for so long, but also because of the reaction that happened when Tamara held and gave her blessing to the Aegis. There was a palpable burst of heat or energy that rose up through the icon from her hands. Was it the sekhem or “power” of Lord Set rushing in to meet Her Holiness, or was it Her Holiness rushing in to meet Him? Or both? It was certainly a powerful moment I was very grateful to be a part of, and one about which Tamara later texted me: “…when you set it in my hands something happened”.
Full Moon Day (Tep semdet) on September 6, 2017 saw the completion of the Aegis of Sutekh Great of Strength after more than three months of intense work. These were months of trial and struggle (technically, spiritually, intellectually and emotionally), and it was very much a grateful iconographer who journeyed once again to Sugarhouse Park in Salt Lake City to offer the face of Lord Set to the sky. My husband and I took the Aegis of Sutekh to the park in His lock box, and there let the God drink in the rays of the afternoon sun as we recited Kemetic prayers, and then offered our own personal petitions to the God Great of Strength. Later that evening, at sundown, we returned to the park for a walk, and were given heavenly confirmation that Lord Set had received His image. That morning as we drove to Salt Lake City, the desert air was clouded by the smoke blowing over from the raging wildfires that were ravaging California and Montana, and by the time sunset fell over Salt Lake City, the sun had transformed into a vibrant red-orange globe descending in the smoky sky.
Later that night we drove back to our home in the northwestern Utah desert, and there, beneath the startling radiance of a smoky yellow-orange moon, offered the Khnem-I’ah to the Aegis of Sutekh Great of Strength. The crash of our sistrum and chanting filled the otherwise still air of the desert night- with the dark amber peaks of our local holy mountains looming behind us. The Bonneville Salt Flats sparkled here and there as if scattered with diamonds, and directly above us the stars of Ursa Major (Meshketiu) shed their sacred lights.
Lord Set is called the “Red One”, and fire is certainly His element, and wildfires a symbol of how His power operates in the natural world. The hand of Set clears out the old making way for the new, and this is His law as it is made manifest throughout creation. He is the force that burns, that separates the “wheat from the chaff”, that cuts down the mature tree and gives birth to the sapling, that prepares new life to explode from death. In many respects the God Set is the master of change and impermanence, for that which never changes never has the opportunity to grow, and Lord Set is the instigator of growth through the agency of change. This is often a difficult and painful process, because any form of change, be it “good” or “bad”, is still a shift in paradigms or of what one has known, and the immediate response can often be flight or terror. The terror of change is the work of Set, Who uses change as a tool to urge growth towards the fulfillment of a goal.
We see this in the mythos of the Family of Geb and Nut, where Set cuts down His own brother and sends Him to the Duat. The Duat is always the destiny of Ausir, Who is only ever allowed a brief time in the material world before He passes over into the realm of the Spirit. It is through the death and suffering of Ausir that He is challenged to renounce His throne in the world of light to become Sovereign of the shrouded world of the dead; but it is Ausir’s final passage into this place of darkness that fills it with a light of its own, and gives freedom to the souls, deities and demons sequestered there. The agency of Ausir’s kingship is none other than His brother Set, Who also plays an instrumental role (albeit a fractious one) in the development of Ausir’s son Heru into the adult king He becomes. These events are possible because of the tumultuous actions of Set, which provoke the entire pantheon of Gods to reexamine Their positions of power and Their loyalties. At the end of a nigh one-hundred year feud, kingship over the world of the living has been restructured, and kingship over the world of the dead established forever. The Gods Heru and Set have taken custodianship over the Black (cultivated) and Red (desert) Lands respectively, while the God Ausir reigns justly as the Divine Judge of men’s hearts and Sovereign of the Blessed Dead.
Having now reached the end of an extraordinary experience of creation and initiation, I can look back on the past three months with a new sense of insight and gratitude. No, Lord Set is not a “nice” deity or an “easy” one. His purpose is not to lull us into a false sense of security or to help us see our world and ourselves through rose-colored lenses. Lord Set’s purpose is to peel away the blinders, and replace the rose-colored lenses with an awareness of things as they truly are. This is an agonizing and ego-crushing process, because we so want to see the world through idealism and attachments that are, in the end, merely ephemeral constructs. These the God Set greedily devours, just as He cuts down the things we need to change in order to be transformed into who and what we really are.
Contrary to His blighted reputation, Set does not accomplish this without compassion, for His valor, His great strength is the strength of a heart roused by a love for the noble qualities of which humankind is fully capable; qualities that Set brings to the surface of the stagnating pond by throwing a rock into its center. His actions spur us into action that allows us to recognize our own inner strength, bravery, and fortitude. His love is a fierce love, a tough love, and a desire to accomplish what is good for the greater good. In the short term this might surface through pain or confusion, as the ego runs wild attempting to escape from the reality Set’s actions confront us with. In these regards, walking with Set can at times feel like we are walking through the eye of a storm; and just around the corner, just beyond our line of sight, the calm of the storm dissolves into frenetic chaos. This is the chaos brought about by radical change, by the sweeping hand of Set, Who is never without change, and never fixed in the world of our illusions.
It is in your pain that I am with you. It is in your darkness that I am with you. It is in your hopelessness that I am with you. It is in your cries and your shouts that you hear My voice, which shatters the sky as thunder, Which cuts the tops of mountains As lightning. It is in your fear that my strong right arm draws Back the bow. My aim is sure, and the Gods of the Sky Acclaim me on account of it! – From a Prayer of the Aegis of Sutekh Great of Strength by Ptahmassu Nofra-Uaa, June 1, 2017
Notes: 1 There are occasions when Set’s role in performing sema-tawy is given over to the God Djehuty or Thoth, which demonstrates how the fear or vilification of this deity is nothing new; however, it is recognized in studying the history of the sema-tawy device that its original two deities were Heru and Set, and that this was the standard visualization for the Union of the Two Lands.
2 Leitz, Christian. Lexikon der ägyptischen Götter und Götterbezeichnungen, Band VIII. Peeters Publishers, 2002, pp 667-670. See also Band VI, pp. 691- 698.
3 See teVelde, H. Seth, God of Confusion. Brill, Leiden 1967, pp. 1-12.
4 Faulkner, R.O. A Concise Dictionary of Middle Egyptian. Griffith Institute, Oxford 2002, pp. 218, 252-255.
5 Faulkner, Ibid., 235.
6 For an excellent article on the Shadow or Shade see the entry written by James P. Allen in The Oxford Essential Guide to Egyptian Mythology. Oxford University Press, New York 2002, pp. 334-335.
7 According to Wikipedia https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Solar_eclipse_of_August_21,_2017