Conceptual art for Poltergeist II (1986) by H. R. Giger
This month at the Kemetic Round Table, we’re discussing the differences between Ma’at and isfet and how these two principles figure into our personal belief systems. I’ve already described what Ma’at means to me in great detail, but I haven’t really said that much about isfet just yet, so this post will be focusing primarily on the latter principle.
As with the word Ma’at, isfet has no precise translation into English. It’s associated with a wide variety of words, including “chaos,” “falsehood,” “disorder,” “imbalance” and “that which is not right.” While Ma’at is the bond that exists between all living things and which negotiates the very essence of reality through balance and reciprocation, isfet is anything that contradicts this bond. It’s what happens when neighbors do nothing to help a woman who’s being killed right outside their homes. It’s when politicians tyrannize their citizens and citizens have no respect for their leaders. We see it in human cruelty to animals and in the extinction of entire species for profit. It can also be seen in deforestation and deculturalization. Isfet is what happens when we lose all respect for the sacred and the Gods turn Their backs on us, leaving us to fight
Apophis all by ourselves. And finally, isfet is when a person’s heart becomes so heavy with wickedness and sin that it must be consigned to oblivion through the hungry jaws of Ammut, the Devourer.
In other words, isfet is the culmination of every moral, political, social and spiritual evil that takes place throughout the universe. Now “evil,” of course, is not a very popular word among most Pagans. Many Wiccans I’ve known have said that there’s really no such thing as “good” or “evil” in nature, and that these terms are nothing more than subjective value judgments. This is true in some cases, as when people describe someone as “good” or “bad” based solely on their political opinions or their tastes in art and entertainment. No one is “bad” just for voting Republican or listening to Toby Keith, but there are things in this world that are purely and simply evil; there’s just no better word for them. What do you call the mass extermination of 11 million people during the Holocaust? Calling that “evil” is hardly a subjective value judgment. We can discuss Adolf Hitler’s social, political and psychological reasons for persecuting the Jewish people as much as we want, but it doesn’t change the fact that trying to wipe out an entire race simply for being that race is evil.
Judaism, Christianity and Islam each agree that the universe is destined to end someday – that at some point in the future, Yahweh’s going to pull the plug and say, “Game Over.” But in the ancient Egyptian religion, our Gods don’t intend for history to ever cease; They want it to go on forever (and as long as Ma’at is upheld, this will be the case). Yet at the same time, the world could end at any possible moment. This is precisely what
Apophis wants; it wants everything in Creation to revert back to endless chaos and inertia. It looks for as many cracks in the fabric of our reality as it can find, pumping isfet through those cracks and into our world. It’s unwittingly helped in this regard by people who work isfet right here on Earth (and who usually do so for selfish ends). Seth-Typhon is always there to beat the crap out of Apophis and cast it back into the Void outside our world, but if things ever get to a point where too many people are working isfet rather than upholding Ma’at, the Gods could just decide to abandon us altogether and let Apophis have us.
Fortunately, there are still enough people in this world who fight for what’s good and true by helping their fellow creatures (whether human, plant, animal, living or deceased), and so long as this remains the case, I don’t believe the Gods will ever completely abandon us. They don’t even care that most people don’t believe in Them, for the Gods of Egypt care more about what people do than what people believe. As I’ve stated before in other posts, you don’t have to actually believe in the Gods to be “pious” or to win Their favor. So long as you treat both the living and the dead with dignity (and refrain from destroying any shrines to any Gods or ancestors), you’re pious enough. But you might be asking yourself why the Gods don’t just step right in and fix everything that’s wrong with our world. If too much isfet can cause the whole structure to collapse, why do the Gods allow us to work isfet in the first place? Why allow for the possibility at all?
In the Heliopolitan Creation myth, it’s said that human beings are the result of a joyous reunion between the Creator, Atum-Ra, and His estranged children, Shu and Tefnut. When Ra was reunited with His descendants, He wept tears of joy that fell down to the body of Geb (i.e., the Earth) and became the first people. This concept of humanity is drastically different from that in most any other faith that exists. According to this, we weren’t the result of “intelligent design”; nor were we fashioned to be mere slaves or playthings of the Gods. We’re Their relatives; we have the same primordial ancestor They do, and there’s just as much of Ra within us as there is within Them. We aren’t as powerful as They are, but this isn’t to say we’re completely dependent on Them either; we do have the power to manipulate our environments, and we can actually participate with the Gods in the ongoing process of Creation. For this reason, the Gods owe us just as much respect as we owe Them. If They simply tyrannized us (like certain other Deities are said to do), They would be working isfet Themselves (and we’d all be screwed)! So even They must follow certain rules if They are to prevent the apocalypse from ever happening; it’s a symbiotic process.
But there’s a frightening flip side to all of this. We’re in a spiritual war for the fate of Creation, and we aren’t just caught between the Gods on one hand and
Apophis on the other. We’re actually involved in this war, and our actions – no matter how small or insignificant they might seem – have a direct influence on whether the universe will continue or die. For instance, let’s say you meet a stranger on your way to work one morning. This stranger could be on the verge of going crazy, grabbing a gun and shooting a crowd of people from a rooftop somewhere. Suppose you smile at this person, give them a wave and wish them a nice day. Much has been said of how much difference a smile can make (even for a total stranger), and it could be that this will keep that person from going on the rampage. On the other hand, shoving this person out of your way and growling an expletive in their general direction could be the one thing that pushes them over the edge. This doesn’t relieve the stranger of their responsibility for their own actions, and it could be that they’ll still harm someone even if you are nice to them. But the point here is that even a small and seemingly insignificant decision like this can potentially influence whether the world will end today or not.
Now keep in mind, there’s a huge difference between isfet and the more chaotic aspects of Ma’at. Compare the Holocaust to Hurricane Katrina and you’ll see what I mean. As tragic and deadly as Katrina was, we can’t ascribe evil to it. These storms are just like big wild animals; they’re simply following their natural way. It’s as natural for them to wipe out entire cities as it is for humans to step on anthills. This isn’t to say that Katrina wasn’t horrible and that we shouldn’t be upset when things like that happen, but it is to say that these things serve an important purpose in our ecosystem. The same cannot be said for what Hitler and the National Socialists did; they knowingly and willfully tortured and killed a bunch of innocent people for no sane or logical reason whatsoever, and their actions only harmed the Earth (especially when we bear in mind that the Holocaust led to World War II, which in turn led to the atomic bomb, which in turn led to nuclear testing and the effects of radioactive fallout). Hurricanes are a part of Ma’at (and they’re specifically under Seth-Typhon’s jurisdiction), but the Holocaust was complete and utter isfet.
Here in the United States, the day after tomorrow – September 11 – is the anniversary of an event the Egyptians would have described as isfet. I can’t think of a better word to describe why a bunch of sickos would want to take four airplanes hostage and fly them into various buildings, killing almost 3,000 innocent people. I can’t think of a better word to describe the belief that “All we have to do to make our God happy is by killing entire crowds of innocent men, women and children.” In fact, I can’t think of a better word to describe the so-called “God” that these people worshiped – which isn’t to say that all Muslims or even all monotheists are worshiping isfet; just the people who commit acts like this. That includes the lousy creeps who are forcing people to leave their homes in Iraq and selling their wives and daughters into slavery right now. Yeah, I don’t care what these people believe; they might think they’re following the “One True God” according to the instructions of His “final prophet,” but they’re really serving
Apophis and helping it spread isfet throughout our world. And when the time comes for them to cross the Veil (hopefully as the result of something really painful and humiliating), they’ll find Ammut waiting for them.
“Betta watch out, sucka!”