The Setup of Set

“Compassion is a melting of the heart at the thought of another’s suffering.”
Bhante Henepola Gunaratana, Eight Mindful Steps to Happiness

“War is a monstrous lack of imagination.”
Franz Kafka

 

It seems appropriate in the week our world leaders gather in Paris to discuss the ecological issue of climate change that we are examining the origin of Western civilization in the dim past of Egypt. Contemplatives train ourselves in taking the long view as the proper context for the radical momentariness of our lives. Ecology can serve as a powerful aid on this contemplative path when we use it to cultivate a serious consideration of and concern for the long term consequences of climate change and peak oil.

Although plenty of signs of climate change are all around us right now the models on which these climate change sciences are based include prognostications for decades and centuries hence. Appreciating their importance entails sensitivity to the long view. The full ecological crisis has also been centuries in the making; many of the issues threatening humanity’s well-being within this planet’s biosphere are the result of long standing behavior. The soil loss, overfishing, scattered toxics and heavy metals, deforestation, desertification, eutrophication, and all the rest of the big picture of which climate change is only one part, have been brewing for generations to reach the degree of crisis we see around us today.

It would be a mistake to pin too high of hopes on whatever resolutions COP 21 might produce, just as it would be a mistake to dismiss such results as completely meaningless. Businesses are starting to pay for some of the financial costs climate change entails and the expenses have become sufficiently worrying that the captains of industry are insisting on some government frameworks in which to work with these issues. This is the element I see as differentiating this gathering from the mostly impotent Copenhagen climate change conference of 2009; more of the rich and powerful are being squeezed. It is reasonable to expect that this time something substantial will be hammered together. If I am right, these conferences are going to include more than a slight resemblance to international trade agreement discussions such as Nafta and the WTO than what we saw in Rio and Copenhagen. Of course if a substantial agreement is reached it will be substantial only within the framework of economic growth.

We find it comforting to divide the world into black and white, good guys and bad guys and then trust our leaders and warriors to tackle the evil on our behalf. It soothes our conscience to assure ourselves these people are in control so we can go about our daily chores untroubled. COP 21 will likely remain firmly within this pattern. No fundamental shakeup of business as usual should be expected, or even seriously discussed. Those of us who are convinced by the evidence that the only long term social organization sustainable within the limits of the biosphere is one that entails a radically smaller human footprint will need to find our comforts elsewhere.


In turning our attention to Egyptian mythology we need to keep in mind that its history spans thousands of years. In that time their stories naturally morphed and changed as evolving needs and understandings worked their way through the symbol systems. Here we stick to the main part of the main story and mention only a few variations.

What more important story might we social primates tell than one of families? They are central to the stories we tell and as we will see, the religions we give our faith to. Asking about the family story we can get right to the heart of the matter. In 2,400 BCE the “holy family” consisted of Osiris, Isis, Horus, Set and Nephthys. This first family is said to be the offspring of Geb, the earth father and Nut, the mother of the starry sky. In the cultus that grew around the stories of this primal family numerous motifs were developed that remain important to Western religious traditions down to our own day.

Isis and Osiris are the mother and father of the brothers Horus and Set and their daughter Nephthys. Set, like Cain in the Bible, is the evil brother said to represent violence and chaos. He rises up and murders Osiris, chopping up his body and throwing the pieces in the Nile River or in another variation scattering them among the 49 provinces (nodes) of Egypt. Isis gathers the pieces and through her magic resurrects Osiris sufficiently to be able to copulate with him. Once she is pregnant she flees to the marshlands of the Nile to escape the wrath of Set who still seeks to thwart Osiris’s resurrection through the birth of the divine child Horus. (A very close motif is found in the Bible’s Book of Revelation where mother church is with child and must flee the wrath of the dragon that would drown her in its river.) For a time Set is made king, remembering perhaps a period in the Old Kingdom when the state collapsed and war bands ruled by violence and chaos. Eventually Horus is born, fights with Set and overcomes him thereby restoring the throne to its rightful heir. It will be said that the Pharaoh rules in life as Horus and rules in death as Osiris. The pyramidal burial chambers of the Pharaohs were meant to provide the food and drink, servants and priests the sacred King would need in his station as Osiris. Horus, who is also known as a god of war, became the first national god as the patron deity of Nekhen. Yahweh, Christ and Allah will all fill the same role at various times in Western history.

In the story of Horus avenging his father and ascending to take his proper place on the throne we are dealing with the primeval story of how one generation takes on the social and religious responsibilities from the previous generation. This is the story of stories as outlined in Booker’s Seven Basic Plots. That this tale of Osiris and Isis served the needs of this millennia-spanning civilization is understandable, given that human psychology has not changed in its fundamentals in thousands of years. Still, its endurance remains remarkable.

Why did Set attack and murder Osiris? By one telling of the tale it was due to Osiris having sexually abused Nephthys who was Set’s consort. Here we have one of the reverberations of the ancient Egyptian I detect in the modern psyche: a seething anger at the abusive father. We need to remember the royal families of kings and queens in Egypt were formed of incestuous relationships. Even among such social norms the pedophilia desire was seen to threaten the order of the cosmos and the peace of society. Set here can serve as a stand in for victims of abuse; all those for whole the law and order of society offered no protection.

Nephthys was considered a festive deity who was also related to childbirth. Her rites consisted of “liberal consumption of beer.” It is in Egypt where we find the beginning of the Western affiliation with beer or alcohol more generally, what has been called the quintessential Christian drink. Those familiar with Jungian thought will recognize her role as the feminine fourth, the other.

In these images we can just barely make out a sublimation of the sorts of events and experiences that are sadly all too common today as well. If we take Set as an example of a young man who learns about his lover’s abuse we can explore some of the ways empathy and compassion might work out. Given the statistics around rape and abuse there must be many young men dealing with this knowledge right now, which makes it a relevant example. Perhaps shedding a little light on the psychological processes involved might help them and their partners as well as deepening our own compassion for such victims by increasing our own comprehension.

First we need to recognize that for such a young man the thoughts of abuse will become an obsession, coming to mind as a shock every day on waking and often provoking insomnia when trying to fall asleep. Assuming he loves and cares for his partner deeply, how could learning of their pain do otherwise? Eventually some reconciliation with the facts occurs and the cutting edge of newness in the knowledge is blunted but in unguarded and unexpected moments the thought will still arise and bring with it all the pain of the raw wound. This is basically a description of the eruption of traumatic events in consciousness found in the post-traumatic stress syndrome. We can assume the victim has also been experiencing the same psychological suffering, perhaps for years.

Pain shared due to love can be coupled with despair when there does not seem to be any way a real healing of the suffering can come to pass. Time heals all wounds we say but we can’t trace time. Nothing hurts as deeply as the impotency we feel when confronted with our own powerlessness to relieve the pain of those we love.

There will also be the whole question of masculine pride. As a provider and protector Set failed the one he loves. Additionally this type of violation is such that it provokes the rage responses built into us by evolution, entailing as it does all the hopes and fears of manhood’s sexual identity, fecundity and responsibility. Boys suffering physical abuse will also have to deal with the consequences to their pride even though the sexual element in these cases are not in the forefront of their experiences of being excessively beaten and hurt.

The struggles of Set and Nephthys can illustrate some of the difficult journey towards true compassion. True compassion is a difficult psychological summit to scale. Is not one of our deepest aspirations that someday, somewhere we will have acted from a truly compassionate motivation uncolored by ego concerns?

At first Set’s psychology will include a strong element of emotional contagion, a mixing of his own feelings with those of Nephthys, as he tries to understand what she must be feeling. Though mixed with pride humiliated, a true empathy is beginning as he tries to comprehend what it is like to be her and live her life. Empathy entails a projection of oneself onto an external other, using the imagination to “feel the other from within” as psychologist Robert Vischer explained when he first used the word in 1873. Empathy can come from cognitive imagination or affective perceptions, both will play a role in Set and Nephthys struggles.

Daniel Batson enumerates eight forms of empathy, only one of which is conductive to an altruistic motivation as necessary and sufficient. The first is knowing another person’s internal state. This can provide reasons for feeling concern but one could learn of another’s internal state and remain indifferent. The second form is motor and neural mimicry, think mirror neurons, yet this remains influenced by emotional contagion. The third is emotional resonance by which we feel what another person is feeling. While this can help altruism arise, in itself it is neither sufficient nor indispensable. Becoming terrified when someone else is terrified or crippled by pain when someone else is in pain does not provide what is needed for a truly compassionate response. The fourth form of empathy is intuiting or projecting oneself into another’s situation but this risks being mistaken in what one is imagining and for compassion it is not necessary to know all the details of another’s suffering, only that the person is suffering. The fifth form is imagining how another is thinking and feeling but this too does not guarantee an altruistic response, after all a psychopath does just that to better manipulate their victims. The sixth form of empathy is imagining how one would think and feel in the other’s place, what if these things had happened to you? But of course Nephthys has her own views and aspirations which will not include, for example, the issues of masculine pride. The clarity of compassion that does not confuse self and other is lacking. The seventh is empathetic distress in which we suffer because they suffer. We see this in babies where one starting to cry can set off a cascade of tears in everyone else. Emphatic distress involves more of a feeling of anxiety invoked by the other than feeling distress for the other and can easily lead to avoidance instead of a compassionate response. We cannot bear to view images of war or discuss the issues of pervasive child abuse or anything else that makes us feel bad, which of course is of no use for the victims.

The eighth form is empathetic concern in which we become aware of another’s needs and then feel a sincere desire to do whatever we can to help. According to Daniel Batson only the empathetic concern is directed towards the other and not towards one’s self. Note how different this is than pity which is often egocentric and condescending. On this path Set can find his way to the only maturity capable of sustaining a long term, loving relationship with Nephthys. On this path the crucial element is adopting the attitude that will bring the greatest comfort to Nephthys and seeing clearly what actions are most likely to heal her sufferings. Basically, emphatic concern lets us say what can I do to really help, regardless of my personal concerns?

Anyone in an intimate relationship surely can appreciate the power of a cheerful, hopeful attitude brought to the relationship. If it is going to reflect the joy of love it cannot remain dominated by fears and complaints, gloom and despair. As a father and someone deeply concerned about the ecological state of the planet I have often needed to ask myself what impression I want to have on my children; an example of a depressed intellectual forever bemoaning the ignorance of the human animal or a cheerful and confident example of someone facing the darkness yet inspired by it to do what I can in my own life?

The next stage of this Egyptian mythology is the many tales of Horus and Set fighting. In some a reconciliation of sorts is worked out as Set takes the eye of Horus and Horus takes a testicle from Set. To set this back into a psychological context imagine a third being between them, a being able to recognize the planetary power of evolution in lust yet not ever blinded by it into committing acts of abuse.

In a bit more Egyptology we can see another phenomenon that will play out in the history of civilizations more than once; the process whereby gods and heroes become devils and demons. The realm of the dead, Duat, was pictured as an underworld populated by demons with names like ‘the blood drinker that comes from the slaughter house’ and ‘he who eats his own excrement’ and other such guardians not all that dissimilar to some of what is found in the Tibetan Book of the Dead’s wrathful deities. The sun god Ra is said to traverse this underworld from west to east every night. For the sun to successfully rise in the east at dawn Ra had to fight and overcome the head demon, the great snake-hippo-crocodile monster Apep. Now what is interesting is that in the earliest stories of Set it is Set that is able to slay Apep, which is how he became associated with the desert wildernesses where the demons and the strange foreigners on Egypt’s borders live. Only later did Set, the Titan-like hero, become the devil, the bringer of violence and chaos. It’s as if to say a bit of rebellion is healthy and needed in the teenage years, the youth of our sexual awakening, if we are to avoid becoming pawns to some dogmatic straight jacket of conformity with no allowance for the spark of individuation. Society recognizes the young need to raise a little hell. These inversion tales teach how desire when uncurbed by self-discipline develops in life threatening ways.

A similar process of historical reinterpretation turned the Greek Pan into the cloven hoofed devil of Christianity. I will suggest by and by that a similar inversion is occurring now as the shadow side of Christian culture wrestles with its devils in the Book of Revelation; in particular the Ayn Rand Christians in the GOP beholden to Babylon who, using neoliberal globalization, “makes all the nations of the earth trade with her.”

If individuals were able to overcome the challenges of their demonic obstacle course through Duat they were said to come to the final judgement – a feature of the afterlife that remains in all three Western monotheisms. The judgement was called the weighing of the heart. It was overseen by the Jackal headed Anubis who weighed a person’s heart against a feather. The feather represented Maat, goddess of truth and justice. Hearts heavier or lighter than the feather were eaten by Ammit, Devourer of Souls (a title still given the devil). If you pass the test you are allowed to pass into the realm of the gods as a blessed soul.

I think the poetic image that a life well lived produces a heart light enough to be weighed by a feather captures beautifully the difficulty of the tangled path of empathy we work with when trying to achieve true compassion as the summit of our human psychological potential.

All of this is familiar enough to anyone raised in the cultures once guided by Christian stories. A God that dies and is resurrected after spending time in the underworld is found the world over. It has been related to vegetative mysteries; a metaphor for the seed that is planted in the dark earth and dies to become the life sustaining crop. The Golden Bough by Frazer went to great lengths gathering evidence for such interpretations. Another telling point is that the annual celebration of the birth of Horus took place at the winter solstice, just as Christianity continues to celebrate the birth of its divine child at the same time, the one point in the year when the longest night gives way  to increasingly long daylight hours; light coming from darkness.

Christianity’s image of Madonna and child is also first found among the statuary and images of Egypt where the roles are being played by Isis and Horus. Isis is also known as the archetypal mourner, the mother mourning much like the Madonna will be as Mater Dolorsa.

Isis_Madonna and Child 2This culture of mausoleums, incest, animal-headed gods and sexual abuse mythologies came to be a representation of all that is evil in the world as a small ethnic minority followed Moses into the wilderness, determined to find liberation from the ‘fleshpots of Egypt.’ Interestingly, when complaint was brought against Pharaoh and the royal house it was not sexual relations that fired the revolutionary fever but the social relations that kept the Jews in abject slavery. We retain echoes of our Egyptian past in this too when we use a pyramid to represent a tyrannical hierarchy ruled by an oligarchy and crushing bureaucracies. We will take up this exodus next week.

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