Ma’at and Isfet, Anpu and Set

So, last night while I was washing dishes at 4 am (don’t ask, nothing I say will justify it XD) I got into a train of thought that led to thinking how would I describe my religion, it’s tenets and basic concepts to my family? How would I describe Anpu so that I don’t get asked (again -_-) if I worship death now? And I came up with several things, which also lead to a great way to describe Set as well.

First thing was Anpu. Well, everyone knows He’s a funerary deity, a god of death. The Mummy franchise has made that common knowledge (as well as His Roman role as the enforcer of curses). But, that’s not all He is. It always baffles me how people can pigeonhole deities, even at the same time of espousing how versatile and helpful and multilayered their deity is. I mean, sure, for some people it’s out of innocent ignorance of how large and varied other deities are (can’t really get mad at someone who never learned those other facets) but still, if YHWH isn’t a one faceted deity, then neither is any other.

Anpu is more than just a death deity. In fact, considering His associations and jobs and how the Ancient Egyptians viewed death and life and the reasons they did various things when a person died, I’d say He is a life deity. The Ancient Egyptians did not worship death, they were unapologetic and enthusiastic lovers of life. Death was a transformation and they sought to make the afterlife as good, and preferably better, as life. Everything they did at funerals and tombs and after that was about promoting a great afterlife. Anpu was a part of all that, He heads that operation. He made hurt bodies whole so the person would not be maimed in the afterlife; He guarded and guided spirits through the Duat; He guarded hearts and helped a dead person reconnect with their heart; He is called The Lord of Life.

Anpu balances the Scales of Ma’at, He is called He Who Unites with Ma’at. How much can you say He is merely a deity of death when He is called Lord of Ma’at? Ma’at is just as much about life as death, because it is balance and you can only reach the afterlife when your heart is aligned with Ma’at. Anpu is a guardian deity, a guiding one. He is a patron of orphans and widows and the lost. And every follower I’ve talked to espouses how kind and calm He is, not only that but my experience shows this. Anpu is the big scary-looking bouncer in the corner who will bottle feed a kitten and play duck, duck, goose with four year olds, but is not opposed to knocking some unruly person over the head. As gentle and patient as He is, one has to remember He traipses through the Duat every day and that’s where lots of things, Apep included, live. He’s no pushover.

So, I worship Anpu, but I do not worship death. Quite frankly I find that to be rather silly, worshipping death. There’s nothing particularly worship-worthy about it. I can’t imagine asking that question even sounds right or makes sense. I suppose there are people out there who worship death, but I don’t. I worship a living god who is a shepherd of life. A god of the liminal, the between, a god of change and transformation. I worship a Lord of Life, and one who is with Ma’at.

Now, Ma’at. Truth, justice, balance, rightness, creation, “good” chaos. All of these things describe Ma’at, but it remains a concept just a little out of reach, just a little beyond our understanding as we are so removed from Ancient Egypt and understanding what they saw. I recently had a conversation with Aubs and Devo and others about Ma’at not being a peace and rainbow farts concept. Ie, Ma’at may be balance, truth and justice, but that doesn’t mean violence is not involved in getting it. Deities like Sekhmet and Set really personify this point as They both are known to use any means necessary, violence included, to bring things back into Ma’at.

Now, I rather like the summarised Shopping Cart metaphor, originally written by Darkhawk. It’s a great way to think of how Ma’at works realistically. If you’re not inclined to read those links, it goes a little like this: Everyone makes choices every day, including choosing not to choose. These choices affect yourself and other people, even if it doesn’t seem like it and those choices can either make things easier on yourself and others or harder. When you do things that contribute to Ma’at, everyone benefits and life is made easier.

The Shopping Cart metaphor illustrates this. Everyone knows how the system is supposed to work with shopping carts, they are conveniently placed at the front of the store, neat and ready for use. If everyone returns them properly, it is a self-sustaining wonder. Everyone knows that doesn’t happen of course, for a variety of reasons, but doing so helps the system to come closer to the ideal. Returning carts, straightening up carts in disarray, it all helps things go better.

Ma’at is very similar. Contributing to order helps everyone, makes life easier and is beautiful. It’s not always easy, or convenient, but it works. As an extension of considering it isn’t always easy, I want to comment on Ma’at and violence and “good” chaos. Yes, I believe in good chaos, though I put quotes around it because, well things may not always seem that way and a person’s perspective may affect what is “good” and what is “bad”. To start, the Ancient Egyptians thoroughly believed in using violence to promote Ma’at. They have several deities who are violent and willing to be violent to turn back isfet and chase away Apep.

Thing is, it doesn’t make sense for Ma’at to be all butterflies and unicorn farts (a favorite comparison on The Cauldron btw lol). Why? Because isfet is not nice, it is not calm and you can’t kill a Big Ass Demon Snake with cookies and cake. There are plenty of ancient scenes and artwork displaying slaying, the slaying of said giant evil snake Apep, enemies, other demons. Swords, spears, blood, body segments, violence all over the place. The promotion of Ma’at can’t be completely non-violent, because isfet is out for blood, it is destruction for destruction’s sake. It is the “bad chaos” that people fear, where things are destroyed and broken down and fall apart for literally no reason. There is no silver lining, no light at the end, it isn’t clearing the way for better things, it isn’t breaking things down to give new nourishment. Isfet is destruction and disaster for pain and suffering, it gets its kicks from being horrid and completely useless.

I thought of some examples for how violence, chaos and destruction can be used to restore ma’at. I’ll get to the one about chaos and destruction after speaking on isfet and Set. The example about violence actually comes from the Bible. The gospels of Matthew and John tell of Jesus driving out the marketers in the temple. I’ve heard people puzzling over this story, especially the version in John, where it says Jesus sat down and made a whip by hand. It took so long that he left the temple for the evening (that’s when he curses the unfruitful fig tree) and went back the next day, presumably with his whip, and drove everyone out of the temple. I’ve been part of conversations where people think Jesus lost his temper, and therefore sinned, but ya know, it seems to me like this is him using any means necessary to restore the temple to its proper order. He goes on to tell his disciples why he did that, because the temple is supposed to be holy and for worship, and it has been defiled and turned into a marketplace. So, he beats the shit out of people and restores the temple to a holy place, and stops the marketers from taking advantage of those who need offerings for the temple. He was restoring ma’at.

Jesus is often seen restoring ma’at, though this is the only example I can think of involving violence on his part. Though I will say, one could see his sending Legion into the herd of swine was one of those chaotic ways of restoring things. Set and Sekhmet are also deities of justice and will restore ma’at by all means necessary, whether that’s crafting a whip and overturning tables, or slaughtering the humans who plotted against the gods, or spearing Apep and tearing down corrupt dynasties.

Isfet is uncreation, which can be a little hard to understand. We think of regular destruction and breakdown as uncreation, but that’s not true uncreation. The laws of thermodynamics state that matter and energy cannot be created or destroyed, only changed. Matter and energy are forms of each other. Isfet seeks to destroy everything, down to matter and energy. It wants to completely unmake the universe, down to obliterating particles and annihilating energy. Such complete and utter destruction is hard to truly grasp. I know I have a hard time really truly imagining it. The epitome of absolute nothingness, where nothing exists in any way, shape or form. No heat, no light, no space or time. Absolute zero, no potential for anything ever. That’s isfet, and that’s what isfet wants. That’s what is the complete opposite of ma’at, and that’s what all the gods and Kemetic followers seek to avoid. The Demon Snake is an agent of isfet, and it plans to start that destruction by consuming Ra and His solar barque when He travels through the Duat at night.

That’s where Set comes in. For a long time He was at the head of the barque. Set is the strongest of the gods, it is He, in many myths and artwork, that is keeping The Demon Snake from boarding the barque and killing Ra and the other deities and spirits on it. Set’s popularity in Egypt changed and waned in the later dynasties when Egypt was experiencing a lot of upheaval and invasion. Set became popular with foreigners and Egypt was xenophobic (unless you came to live there and became part of society, then you were considered Egyptian, perfect assimilation not necessary). Not liking the foreigners conquering their land, they started to disassociate with Set and consider Him, well, evil. Certainly the foreigners coming in with opinions on Set’s chaotic nature had something to do with it as well.

Most people today see any chaos as bad. Set is, by definition, a chaotic god. But He isn’t evil. Just, challenging. Chaos and destruction can be hard to accept and understand, especially when, at least at the time, they don’t see any rhyme or reason for it. This is where the example I mentioned earlier comes in. Everyone can agree that wildfires are chaos in motion right? Right. Fire is one of those things that is so helpful and useful and yet so destructive and violent. Most people see wildfires as very bad, especially in places that have homes. It’s understandable, fire is causing destruction, wreaking havoc. It seems to be killing plants and animals, threatening  human lives as well. Wildfires don’t seem to have anything good about them.

Alas, there are many creatures (mainly plants) that benefit massively from wildfires. Many species of plants in areas prone to wildfires actually need the fire. There are species that even make it easier and more likely for fires to start and spread. The fires are a part of their life cycle, not to mention that ash is very fertile, hence volcanic regions being highly fertile and colonized despite the danger. Even though wildfires are destructive and can be harmful, especially if they’re out of control, they are necessary and useful displays of chaos improving the world. By clearing away the old and dead and leaving fertility and potential behind, wildfires are an essential part of many ecosystems’ health and beauty.

Set is just like that. Of course, no one said chaos is easy to accept or work with. Just because you may actually see how the destruction is helpful and clearing away the old and dead to make room for and fertilize the new doesn’t make it any easier to be in it. I can’t imagine that those plants are ever totally happy about the fires. They know they need those fires, they may even be the ones who make it easier for fires to start and spread, but I bet they flinch and cringe as it starts and comes near. I bet it still hurts to be burned and broken away, or in the case of seeds that need fire to germinate, I bet it sucks to be sleeping and suddenly ablaze and cracked open, forced to grow or die.

But Set is like that. And ya know what? Anpu steps in I imagine. The fire is a painful change foisted by Set, encouraged and supported by Him, and you are transformed. And Anpu is a god of transformation and healing, you wonder if He comes in after the fires have passed and touches the black and ravaged soil. Does He touch those hurting seeds, those hurting plants to encourage them? To push them towards the healing that will lead to them growing stronger and healthier? He is a god of fertility as much as death. And let’s not forget Set. He’s rough, but He does care, deeply at that. I imagine He’s not in the business of tearing things apart and leaving you high and dry to your own devices, at least not all the time. And I’d bet money that bossy hurricane would rip the heavens asunder if you really needed Him to.

This is what comes to me while washing dishes at four am lol