The Kemetic Round Table is a project where devotees of the Egyptian Gods write informative responses to questions from people who are new to our faith. I thought I might contribute to the project, and if you’re interested in doing so as well, you can find further information about it here. The following is my first attempt at responding to one of the group’s more recent questions:
“Mythology: How necessary is it? Does it affect your practice? Should it?”
In my opinion, myths are stories that aren’t literally true, but which are symbolically true. They can also be true in more ways than one. I think they’re something that Gods and people develop together over time. Gods are cosmic entities that transcend anything we can imagine or understand; They’re invisible, infinite and non-linear. How on Earth can we ever hope to interact with such mighty Beings? The answer lies in visible symbols, finite names and linear stories. I believe the Gods reached down and touched the minds of our ancient ancestors, sending these things to them in their dreams. Such is how I think myths first began. On the one hand, the complex messages of these stories originated from the Gods Themselves; this is why every mythology on Earth shares certain basic similarities. On the other hand, the imagery and vocabulary of these stories are based on the specific geographical and cultural conditions of the people to whom they were given; this is why the Egyptian myths are different from, say, the Celtic myths.
The ancients seem to have understood that their myths weren’t meant to be taken literally, and that they’re all symbolically true in some way (despite the differences in their details). I don’t think the Egyptians wasted very much time arguing over which cosmogony (e.g., the Heliopolitan, the Hermopolitan, the Memphite, etc.) is “correct” – and even if they did, it was probably in a strictly academic context. No one appears to have ever been killed or considered a “heretic” for believing Ptah created the world instead of Ra. From what I’ve seen, polytheistic Deities tend not to care what people “believe” about Them so much; so long as They’re honored in certain ways at certain times by certain people, They seem generally content. The issue in polytheism is not so much of “belief” but of practice, and I think mythology is only “necessary” when it’s used to inform our ethical and ritual conduct. When it’s used to justify dogma (as in Creationism or the Inquisition), it can become extremely detrimental, even dangerous.
That being said, mythology is a very important part of my faith, but only insofar as it relates to the way I live my life and the way I interact with my patron Deity. I’ve pieced together my own account of Seth-Typhon’s mysteries from such academic sources as Herman te Velde and Jan Assman, and it’s the version of events that we use in LV-426. However, we don’t take these events literally and we certainly don’t claim to have the “one true definitive” version. Our version of events – at least as far as Seth-Typhon is concerned – goes like this:
Seth was one of four children born to the Goddess Nut and Her husband, Geb. He’s the younger brother of Osiris and Isis, and He’s the older brother and ex-husband of Nephthys. He ripped Himself right out of Nut’s womb like an F5 tornado. He’s also infertile and can’t conceive children. This is why Nephthys left Him and seduced Osiris, which is how Anubis was born. When Seth found out, He drowned and dismembered Osiris into 14 pieces. He buried 13 of these pieces throughout the world, but He kept Osiris’ phallus and made it into a talisman for Himself. Then Isis resurrected Osiris with the help of Nephthys and Anubis, giving Him an artificial phallus. Osiris magically impregnated Her with Horus and then descended to Duat, where He established justice for the dead. When Horus grew up, Seth clawed out one of His eyes; Horus retaliated by castrating Seth, but neither God could defeat the other. Thoth came and negotiated a truce between Them; Horus became incarnate in the kings of men, and Seth became the protector of Ra. His castrated genitals were forged into His mighty Iron-Tipped Spear, which is also the Big Dipper. He now battles the monster
Apophis with this Spear every night, preventing it from swallowing Ra and un-creating the universe. He also has two concubines: Astarte (whom He rescued from the monster Yamm) and Anath (whose body is poisonous to the touch).
Which pretty much brings us to speed.
Now of course, there are many different versions of this timeline. Some versions have Seth killing Osiris because He wanted to usurp His brother’s throne; others state that He dismembered Osiris into more (or fewer) than 14 pieces. There are also some versions in which Ra is the father of Anubis, not Osiris, and in which Horus resurrects Osiris, not Isis. At the end of the day, I don’t really care about these discrepancies; our version of Seth-Typhon’s story works well enough for me and my spirit brothers. Again, we don’t take any of this literally; we don’t actually believe that the Big Dipper is really a gigantic iron penis or that there’s really a gigantic snake that tries to swallow the Sun every night. We also don’t think the events of this story happened in some distant past or that they’re already done and over with. We see them as cyclical events that occur on every level of existence, from the cosmic to the subatomic.
For example, the death of Osiris happens when the Moon wanes, when autumn kills the summer, when a bolt of lightning causes a forest fire, and when a gardener trims a rosebush. His resurrection happens when the Moon waxes again, when winter gives way to spring, when soil is enriched with nitrogen after a forest fire, and when a rosebush sprouts new growths after being trimmed. The reconciliation of Horus and Seth occurs when an equinox establishes perfect balance between day and night, when different objects are attracted to a magnetic field, when a pair of scales is brought into perfect balance, and when opposing groups of people make peace with each other. And Seth’s battle against
Apophis happens when the Sun is just about to rise at dawn, when a child is about to be successfully born, when we awaken to see a new day, and when a monstrous evil is defeated by an unlikely hero. This sympathetic identification of mythical events with things that happen in our everyday lives is the basic starting point for all magical thinking.
I use Seth’s myths to interact with Him during worship, to conduct magical rituals, to celebrate holidays and to make sense out of the things that happen in my life. I identify with how He must have felt when He was just the “red-headed stepchild” of the pantheon (and when Nephthys left Him). I know that when my life is being ripped apart, I’ve become like Osiris and Seth is just “dismembering” me to make me a stronger person. And when I have to face something that terrifies me, I just think of how Seth battles
Apophis every night. Apophis is the most frightening thing imaginable, but Seth isn’t afraid; He always does His job and He protects Ra no matter what. I want to be as much like Him as possible, so when I have to struggle with something that horrifies me, I try my best to follow His example and tackle that thing without shrinking away. (I’m not always successful at this, mind you, but the point here is that I try.)
Some religions make their theology as abstract as possible (e.g., Deism, Gnosticism, Neoplatonism), but that sort of thing just doesn’t work for me personally. (More power to those for whom it does work.) If the purpose of any religion is to orient oneself with other people and the rest of the cosmos, I find it much easier to accomplish this goal by identifying with a Deity who has a unique personality and story. I also find it very rewarding to invite that Deity into a graven image and to interact with It anthropomorphically. I know that more abstract religionists tend to frown upon this sort of thing, calling it “idolatry” and claiming that it actually takes us “further away” from the Eternal Source…But I disagree. This is the way people have been doing it since that monkey first learned how to use a bone as a weapon in Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968), and in my opinion at least, it’s still the most effective way to interact with Divinity today.