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Welcome to Egypt week at Ferrebeekeeper! All of this week’s posts will share an Egyptian theme. To start out Egypt week, we cast our gaze deep into the underworld beneath the Nile and the burning desert. The dark river passages beneath the world are said to be the home of the principle ancient Egyptian god of chaos, the great serpent Apep (AKA Apopis or Apophis).
According to myth, the sun god Ra carried the sun across the heavens on a mystical solar boat every day. Then every evening Ra returned from west to east via an unseen river path through the underworld. As night covered the world and the sun god struggled to return to the farthest point in the east in time for sunrise, the great serpent would appear from the dark waters to attack the boat.
Apep would try with all of his might to devour the sun in the manner than a serpent eats an egg. Some myths maintain that Apep was the sun god before Ra and wanted the sun back out of dynastic bitterness. In other sources the great demon is not ascribed with a back story and is only a huge snake who wants to eat the sun. Sources agree that Apep was not so much worshiped as “worshiped against.” Many prayers and liturgies from ancient Egypt are magical incantations to help the gods stave off attacks by the huge poisonous snake.
Ra was assisted in fighting off the nightly attack by an unlikely figure, the powerful god Set–a fratricidal maniac with the head of an unknown animal (who doubles as the god of evil and the desert). Whatever Set’s other faults might be, lack of vigilance against giant chaos serpents was not among them. In several passages from ancient literature, Set is heard to boast about his prowess and bravery in making sure the sun gets past the serpent in order to rise on time. The spirits of the devout who had passed to the next life could also help out by rowing the beautiful boat. In later Egyptian myth, the battle goddess Bastet would also assist Ra and Set in fighting the demon.
Of course despite the best intentions of the gods, Apep would occasionally get the upper hand and temporarily run off with the sun. Such (rare) days were marked by storm and overcast skies. Additionally the wily snake demon would sometimes leave the underworld and try to devour the sun as it gloriously made its way across the heavens. According to Egyptian superstition, these occasional daytime attacks were responsible for solar eclipses. Fortunately Ra and the other protectors of the sun could always rely on a reservoir of spiritual energy to drive back the snake (helping the gods defeat Apep was one of the purposes of worship in ancient Eypt). Because of the power of prayer, Apep, dreadful demon snake of the underworld, never did succeed in devouring the sun.
Writing about the ancient Egyptian gods of the underworld brings a dilemma: unlike the Greeks or the Chinese, the Egyptians loved the gods of the dead. They believed the afterlife would be a delightful paradise where virtuous souls would be free to pursue their favorite pastimes with friends and family for eternity [coincidentally, does this sound familiar to anyone?]. The ruler of the underworld, Osiris, was one of the most cherished Egyptian gods and he has some claims to primacy within their pantheon. As god of agriculture, Osiris made grain grow after it was planted and he annually brought life to the Nile (upon his death, he gave his fertility to the river—see the story below). After being killed, he came back to uncanny magical life with even greater power and he offers a doorway to the glories of the next realm.
To the Egyptians, the god of evil and chaos was the slayer of Osiris—his brother Set, the Lord of the Red Desert. Set was god of the lands beyond the fertile Nile river bed. He ruled the scorpion-haunted wastes where no crops would grow, where sand storms and flash floods materialized swiftly out of the baking land. Like many Egyptian gods, Set has the head of an animal, yet scholars are unsure what that animal is: Egyptologists simply refer to it as the Set animal.
He sometimes also appears as a black pig, a crocodile, or a hippopotamus.
Set slew his brother Osiris in order to gain sovereignty over Egypt. He then cut the body into pieces which he cast far and wide. Osiris’ dutiful wife, Isis, gathered the pieces (except for one critical piece which had been thrown into the Nile and eaten by a catfish) and magically reassembled them. Thoth and Anubis then embalmed Osiris who became the deathless ruler of the next realm. Osiris’ son, the falcon-headed Horus, took vengeance for his father by reclaiming his throne and castrating Set. Set was exiled into the desert to become the evil god of drought, dryness, and sandstorm.
Of course all of this is stereotyping—the civilization of ancient Egypt has a long history. Osiris and Set were venerated by dynasties and political factions which were very different from each other during their 3,600 year run. All sorts of changes, hybridization, and confusing paradox crept into their tale. Archeology seems to indicate that Set was the principal deity of the desert people of Upper Egypt (the dry southern uplands). When these desert warriors conquered all of Egypt, they adapted the gods of fertile Lower Egypt and made their own deity an outcast. Nevertheless, worship of Set endured throughout dynastic history. Set was feared by all and held in particular esteem by the desert folk living at the boundaries of agricultural society.