Apollon and the Egyptian God Set

First of all I think it is necessary to make note of the fact that I have not seriously studied Kemetic religion or Egypt even since I was in highschool. Since I am nearing my 35th birthday, that means it is has been quite a few years. And even though I felt like it gave me a good foundation I will be the first to admit that there is a lot that I have forgotten over the years (or is buried so deep it would probably take someone highly trained in hypnotism to bring it out). All the same, as today is Karneia and I am observing the movement of the year of Apollon’s functions as he is finalizing his preservation of human civilization from the devastation of wilderness (which is more accurately his domain even if he acts at holding it back out of compassion for humanity) I thought it would be appropriate to spend a moment to write about the relationship of Apollon and the Egyptian god I think most strongly resembles him: Set.

As most know when it comes to term of Hellenic-Kemetic syncretism that typically it is Heru-sa-Aset (or Horus the younger/Horus the son of Isis) with whom Apollon is usually linked historically by Hellas. I have been of the opinion for some time since reading the work of Diodoros Siculus that this association was likely most plausibly made to explain the marked difference between Apollon’s roles in the mysteries, as a son of Demeter (whom the Hellenes observed to be like Isis, while at the same time being Persephone) and Dionysos (whom they observed to be like Osiris). Thus we have a narrative of the mysteries that they must have come from Egypt and that Apollon was the son of Osiris as he was the son of Dionysos and that of Demeter (or Persephone) rather than being native to Hellas, and that Orpheus learned of these mysteries and observed them in his time there and brought them back and taught them to the Hellenes. Yet the mysteries which are reinterpreted as Kemetic have little to do with the native religion itself when looked at, nor do the Hellenic mysteries resemble them too closely. Therefore I take it more as a metaphorical translation which serves merely to help tell the mysteries without really telling them…even if it is making stuff up or changing stuff around.

We already can see a more clear distinction between Artemis and Nephthys, the sister-wife of Set as imagined as a kite, a bird that Aristophanes in his play “the Birds” associated with Artemis particularly. That and a very particular nurse goddess as well as a companion of Isis and goddess who has particular attachments with death, if Demeter is like Isis, we can see the huntress/nurse Artemis to be akin to Nephthys more so than the joyous Bastet, especially given myths where Artemis takes a larger participatory role in the rape of Persephone for which we can see Artemis and Demeter standing in distinctive roles when it comes to the departure and emergence of Persephone. In fact she shares a number of powers quite similar to Isis that it is rather awe-inspiring, and a goddess of the twilight (which I think is more apt for Artemis as it is for Apollon) as the vessel of Re descends into the underworld. In the temple of Hera at Argos we get a sense of this kind of relationship when in the hallway of the goddess Pausanias observes that the statues of Demeter and Persephone (which could be taken in similar context if replaced with Dionysos who likewise descends and was later added to the mysteries of Demeter) faced that of Apollon and Artemis at the other side of the hall. There is an immediate relationship here of a particular pairing facing off, which are parallel and oppositional (not in a bad way). Apollon and Artemis act specifically on Persephone (or Dionysos in which it is even more clear). If we had Demeter and Dionysos facing them we probably could have had an interesting parallel for the Osiris-Isis and Nephthys-Set pairings, and even more interesting given the supportive relationship Nephthys has with Isis and affection for Osiris that brought along Anubis the funerary god (which can both be linked to Hermes Psychopompos (which is far more common)  and by my opinion to Apollon as guardian of the tomb) who is also called the son of Set in some texts.

Typically, as I mentioned above, in order to fulfil the purpose of the Hellenic narrative we have Apollon associated with Horus, usually based on his serpent slaying (never mind that Set is the ultimate force against Apep the great serpent) and largely due to his medicinal/healing attributes, as well as solar characteristics that become particularly emphasized in Apollon’s later cult. That is not to say that Apollon had zero such attributes, but it is more likely that he was a god of the twilight and in the solar context would have had more in common with Khepri, the god who brings the sun into becoming, and in some things I have read also been associated with the sunset. I am not sure what that may have in common with Set at all, but it is an observation and there has been on author who pushed for a recognition of the name of Apollon coming from an altered form of the name of Khepri. All the same, while Apollon is particular to that time of the day as the god who turns round the days and seasons (and therefore appropriate as god of becomings and endings) his cult is largely more distinctive as a god of natural destructive forces (which includes the sun which in hotter climates can be a bane that withers crops and destroys life as well as decaying flesh), as well as the more ancient associations with the wind storms that we see lingering in particular cult traditions and specifically in the cult name of Apollon Telkhinios.

As I have said in other posts, Apollon as a god of healing, abundance, civilization etc should usually be examined through the lens of what his name is, what his primary action is. He is the destroyer. That name is not accidental, but has a very particularly purposeful meaning behind it. That makes him more appropriately a god of the wild places, of famine and illness etc. Yet as myth demonstrates, he loves humanity and is compassionate. Therefore I see his guardianship of cities and pastoral flocks etc as a intentional holding back of that which is within his domain in order for human life to prosper. As we see with Rudra in India and Set in Egypt, or Rashef in Mesopotamia (none of these being *evil* gods by any stretch of the imagination) it is not uncommon at all to see a god of destruction/illness be petitioned for exactly the opposite purposes. Therefore it is reasonable to understand how a god of the destructive forces of nature and the wild lands would be a god who protects civilization. Certainly makes sense to me how and why Set would have been king of Upper Egypt! There is some quite odd commentaries out there that the Greeks associated Set to Typhon, when that would more accurately probably should be aligned to Apep.

In fact when looking close at the roles that Set provides (keeping in mind he also had very important supportive roles to Osiris and Horus) that his role as a slayer is not uncommon to the domain of the god and not unnatural to what you find with Apollon, particularly when looking at the relationship of Apollon and Dionysos in which Apollon is not only one who lauds Dionysos and is the first to greet him as a god but is also a god who can be seen as assisting the slaying of Dionysos. The Thyiades (who were named after a nymph who was a lover of Apollon as well as a follower of Dionysos) is perhaps a good starting point of looking into this relationship. But perhaps more strongly would be the iconographic imagery of the wolf and the bull, and instances of contest between them. Or even Theseus (with strong links to Apollon) and the Minotaur (even though I have stated before the Minotaur is strongly linked also to Apollon as guardian of the gates). Apollon as a year god and Dionysos as a seasonal and dying god thus have this natural dance that they go through which I think is appropriate to for that Osiris and Set, that the one god who loves the other who must dye, is the god who cares for him but also is the one who cuts him down by necessity. Even the exile of Set has a very strong taste of the exile of Apollon who was banished from the company of the gods for his transgression of murder. That which is necessary in nature is not always popular in any case among men or gods in myth it seems.

We see too much of the protective nature of Apollon in Set as Set is the god who protects the sun barge during its nightly traversing of the underworld. And Set as a god who restrains the desert is very much in line with how I see Apollon as a god restraining the wilderness/wolves/locusts/mice/etc. Even Set slaying Apep has a similar imagery to Apollon slaying the Python. Nevermind associations of particular animals such as the boar. Unfortunately in later periods Set gained enormously unpopularity. He is just not as pretty as Apollon apparently, and invaders saw set as being more common with Typhon and evil forces that natural destructive ones, whereas Apollon’s reputation remained fairly intact until Christianization of Hellas.  In fact philosophy and later traditions that veered more into a solar cult and away from his original cult worship as a god of the natural destroying forces of nature probably did more to preserve his image than anything else. Associations Apollon had with falcons due to his swiftness of travel were played upon to show that Apollon spent time in Egypt as a falcon god makes such associations with Horus and solar cults even more pronounced. His relationship to Harmony becomes more pronounced in the writings of Plato and overshadows his more known destroyer associations……but overlooking that as god of the year who turns round the seasons part of the harmony is the necessity of destruction. Yet I think it was the shift of focus from the less destructive features of Apollon’s cult onto that which he preserved from his own forces that did a lot for his cult to not go a similar route as that of Set in later periods. I mean I have wondered a time or two, even as Set has been linked erroneously with the mad chaos that is Typhon) if plays on Typhon weren’t reminiscent or reflective in some manner of the Cretan contest between Zeus and Apollon as son of Corybas (who himself was transformed into a black dragon), and shows up again when Apollon battles the second Python (not Delphyne but the son of Gaia). It all makes an interesting turn of the mind.

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7 thoughts on “Apollon and the Egyptian God Set

  1. Thank you for this article. It is food for thought to me.

    Some days ago I was reading your recommended “Krappe, Alexander H. – Apollon Onos” and had similar thoughts. But I came on other ways to them. I have a book about Set somewhere here in my personal chaos (LOL), which describes his connection to donkeys. So Set as a god of donkeys, in the anthropomorphic shape of this animal. It is very interesting. But what you write is also VERY interesting.
    I guess worshipper of Set will stab me (or both of us) because of this association between them. I have the impression, that Apollon is not very popular in circles focussing on Set, because of the tons of misconceptions about Him going around in the non-scientific literature.
    I once had some experiences with Set in rituals (not kemetic) and liked his energy. It was kind of familiar.

    • The popular understanding of Apollon is highly influenced by certain later cult associations and philosophy particularly, as well as late syncretism with Horus that I think that the primary domain of Apollon (which is inclusive of the sun as well as the moon) gets lost in it. I am sure if followers of Set looked at Apollon’s destructive domain (which includes windstorms) as his association with wild lands (swamps, high mountains etc) and a closer look at the exile(s) for Apollon for murder (for both the case of Delphyne where he sent himself into exile and the case of the Cyclops wherein his father cast him into exile) and his associations with disease, famine etc that are pretty consistent in his local cults…..they will see it is not quite the image that is initially conceived of in regards to Apollon and see a deity that is familiar and at least shares several commonalities. But then again I don’t expect (or really care) if people have an issue with my syncretisms and my posts as to why they make sense to me because that is about my relationship with Apollon, how I see him etc.

      • You’re right with your last words. I should care neither.
        As I wrote some some time ago on your article on Rudra, I am very interested in syncretism. And wind storms seem to play a big role in it. This aspect seems very strong and shared. I don’t know how you see Apollons connection to Odin. Did you ever write about it?
        I think in Apollons connection to mice as Smintheus (in this case also as spirits, souls and such things) and storms, as a hunter and lord of the wilderness and some other things it seems very obvious to me.

  2. Pingback: Apollon und Set | Tales of an Urban Priestess

  3. This is very interesting! There is at least one spell in the Greco-Egyptian magical papyri wherein Typhon (who is conceptualized in the papyri more as Seth and less as the Hellenic Titan) is mysteriously identified with Helios. Many archaeologists suppose that this spell was developed out of ignorance as to just how Seth and Helios are different, but it could be that the magicians who wrote these texts were actually on to something. Greek religion isn’t my field, so I don’t know that much about Apollon and Helios; but that’s a potential lead you might investigate further, if you like.

    Also, Seth and Apollon have both been identified with the Christian devil, and not just in the vague general way that all Pagan Deities are associated with him by Christians. Satan got his red colors and his barbed tail from Big Red, and Seth continues to choose some of His modern followers from within the Satanist subculture even today. And Apollon, of course, became an adopted name for Abaddon, the “angel of the bottomless pit,” who is sometimes identified with Satan (and sometimes not).

    • In the Mediterannean (and I would imagine in Desert environments as well) the sun could at any time be viewed a potentially devastating and hostile being….we are talking about the hottest times of the year that withers growing things, especially during a drought year. The role of the sun to attack and decay life is quite poignant and is the reason I suspect that Apollon was initially associated with the sun, due to this character of the sun’s power. The only time in myth we directly see him tied to the sun in to the myth of Delphyne from the Homeric Hymn to the Pythian Apollon in which he uses the power of the sun to cause the body of Delphyne to rot away thus giving her the name Python from the processing of rotting. So my guess such alignment was probably not misinformation or accident but a very intentional focus on that particular power of the sun. It would also negate the popular concepts of complete polarity between Horus and Set for that matter. And indeed the connections with the devil are quite telling I would agree.

    • Incidentally dragons (which were generally recognized both as guardians of particular spaces as well as destructive beings (see the myth regarding Delphyne)) are associated both with Helios in some versions where his chariot was said to be pulled by dragons rather than horses (which Medea borrowed to escape being his granddaughter and able to gain certain favors), and Apollon where he has not only been likewise depicted driving a dragon chariot but also more directly associated with dragons via Delphyne (for whom he took his name Pythios from the name she received Pythia as per her rotting and in alternate myths where he is the son of Corybas who himself was transformed into a black dragon)….even more subtly as the god appearing in the form of serpents. In more direct ways we also have him descended from a heavenly dragon more or less as Koios, who is the axis of the heavens is represented by the North Star which is the baleful eye of a great celestrial dragon….which has given rise to my own pet idea regarding associations with Phoebe at the axis of the earth and the dragoness Delphyne, which gives layers of meaning to the penitence of Apollon and his grief after slaying her by necessity (but even after which we find her as a continued presence as a daemon of Delphi) The relationship between Typhon and Delphyne is quite interesting if you have ever read up on it. She appears to play a kind of consort role (think in these terms of Delphyne in the form similar to an Echidnae (Echidnae incidentally being the mate of Typhon) as she has been at times depicted half serpent half woman. Typhon even went so far as to hide the sinews of Zeus in her cave until Hermes retrieved them with the aid of the hero Cadmus. I find it interesting here particularly considering that all the gods were said to flee from Typhon, and yet Delphyne is present when Apollon was said to have slain the dragon in his youth shortly after his birth. This makes an interesting mythic contradiction in which one has to wonder if Delphyne at this point is the dragoness or if she is guardian daemon of Delphi and why Apollon then wasn’t instrumental in this myth giving his sacred precinct.

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