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Osiris, Enthroned, Judging the Dead

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.

What is that thing? A Rabbit? An Aardvark?

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.

Set, as envisioned by a contemporary artist (I think he's carrying a mace rather than a spoon, but, who knows, maybe he's about to attack a pasta salad)

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.

The Emperor Tang Taizong, Lǐ Shìmín

I am circling back to write about one of the most important men in history, Lǐ Shìmín, aka Emperor Taizong of the Tang Dynasty.  Although he is the success against whom all subsequent rulers of China are judged, I am not going to address his remarkable reign (nor his mythical journey to hell) but rather how he killed two of his brothers in order to assume the throne.

Lǐ Shìmín lived from 599 AD to 649 AD and ruled from 626 AD to 649 AD.  It was he who convinced his father to rise up against the tyrannical Sui dynasty.  Leading his father’s troops, he crushed the Sui and dominated the ensuing civil war (a thrilling conflict which involved ominous prophecies, turncoat sisters, and the fall of princely houses).  He is thus credited as co-founder of the Tang dynasty–even though he was in fact its second emperor.

Although he was clearly the force behind the rebellion and the chief architect of the new dynasty, Lǐ Shìmín had an older brother who was crown prince and heir apparent.  Lǐ also had a younger brother who hated him and schemed together with the eldest brother to bring Lǐ down: united they tried to poison him and implicate him in various crimes.

Lǐ Shìmín went before his father, the Emperor Gaozu, and accused his two brothers of sleeping with the aging emperor’s concubines and plotting regicide.  A disloyal concubine informed the crown prince and the younger brother of this accusation, which lead the two to ride to the palace to find out the details from their father himself.  They were shocked to discover that Lǐ Shìmín and his loyal troops had seized control of the palace’s north gate (through which they habitually rode).  From horseback, as his younger brother fired arrow after arrow at him, Lǐ Shìmín shot his elder brother with an arrow and killed him.  Lǐ Shìmín’s faithful guard and favorite commander Yuchi Jingde then arrived with 70 handpicked soldiers, but Lǐ’s horse became spooked and bolted into a forest with the younger brother in close pursuit.  The horse slipped and fell on its rider, leaving Lǐ unable to escape as his younger brother tried to strangle him with a bow.  At this critical point the faithful Yuchi arrived in the glade and personally killed the malicious younger brother.  Two months later, the old Emperor Gaozu abdicated his throne in favor of his son, who quickly purged away his brother’s families.

The "Incident" at Xuanwu Gate

As a side note, posterity rewarded Yuchi Jingde richly for his loyalty: over the centuries he evolved into a guardian god whose image is still seen on doors today.

Ye Olde Ferrebeekeeper Archives

August 2022