Listen, my lord. I was a great sorcerer in the south. Men spoke of Thoth-Amon as they spoke of Rammon. King Ctesphon of Stygia gave me great honor, casting down the magicians from the high places to exalt me above them. They hated me, but they feared me, for I controlled beings from outside which came at my call and did my bidding. By Set, mine enemy knew not the hour when he might awake at midnight to feel the taloned fingers of a nameless horror at his throat! I did dark and terrible magic with the Serpent Ring of Set, which I found in a nighted tomb a league beneath the earth, forgotten before the first man crawled out of the slimy sea.
— “The Phoenix on the Sword”
Can there exist an REH aficionado who doesn’t recognize that passage? Probably not. It’s Thoth-Amon speaking, the dark and terrible sorcerer from Stygia, that sinister land where wizard-priests ruled and serpents were worshipped. As Damon Sasser says, REH used the character sparingly, keeping him in the background — there was never a direct confrontation between Thoth-Amon and Conan in Howard’s own stories — but de Camp and Carter had him running amuck in their pastiches, and turned him into a cartoon villain. As someone else once remarked, the only melodramatic cliché they didn’t have him utter was, “Curses! Foiled again!”
Stygia in the Conan stories was REH’s prehistoric and supernatural version of Egypt. The Styx and Acheron in Greek myth were two of the dark rivers of Hades, hence the adjectives “Stygian” and “Acherontic”. Stygian darkness became a stock phrase for hellish and gloomy murk in English. In Howard’s stories, Stygia and Acheron were twin evil empires whose borders marched together, in prehistoric times, before the northern barbarians, the Hybori, invaded and destroyed Acheron and swept on southward, driving the Stygians back into their original homeland.
And the Stygians worshipped Set. In REH’s stories he seems to have been their only god, really. In The Hour of the Dragon, Howard writes (Chapter XVII) “ … serpents were sacred to Set, god of Stygia, who men said was himself a serpent.” In the story “The God in the Bowl” Thoth-Amon sends a deadly gift to an enemy of his cult — one of Set’s ancient children, a man-headed serpent asleep in a bowl-shaped sarcophagus. “The thought of Set was like a nightmare, and the children of Set who once ruled the earth and who now slept in their nighted caverns below the black pyramids.” Highly-placed sorcerer-priests of Set, like Thoth-Amon and Thutothmes, his rival, have the power of killing with a mere touch of their open hand. It leaves the black print of palm and fingers on the victim’s flesh (The Hour of the Dragon).
Well and good. Set was a genuine and documented ancient Egyptian god. He was also – certainly in the popular culture of REH’s day – considered an evil god, the murderer of Osiris, and persecutor of Isis and the infant Horus. The name was evocative in a modern Christian land – Set/Serpent/Satan. Like most of Egypt’s other gods, though, Set had many aspects, and there were many myths about him, which had developed and changed down the centuries. Trying to follow them from the beginning, and sort them out, will lead us on a trail as convoluted as a snake’s twisting in itself.
First and definitely, he was not a snake. Like many deities of Egypt, he was represented with the body of a human being and the head of some animal or bird. Thoth had the head of an ibis (and was also represented by baboons, who were said to be wise), the warlike Sekhmet a lioness, Horus a falcon, the maternal, nourishing, and supportive Hathor a cow. Set, in keeping with his puzzling and many-sided qualities, wore the head of a beast hard to identify. It had a curiously shaped muzzle and long, square-tipped ears. It has been suggested that the animal was a wild desert ass, an aardvark, a pig, or a composite of all three.
Like certain other Egyptian gods, though, Set was not always depicted with a non-human head. He was occasionally described as a man with red hair and red eyes – red being the color of evil in ancient Egyptian symbolism. He wasn’t considered always or exclusively evil until very late in Egyptian history – but that can be covered at another point in the post.
Set may even have been a Libyan god originally. He was always associated in the Egyptian mind with foreigners and the desert, with fierce storms and violence. He was first called Setesh, with a later hardening of the sound to Setekh or Sutekh, and a final abbreviation to Set.
(In passing, an old Doctor Who adventure, “The Pyramids of Mars,” featured one of the fourth Doctor’s most powerful adversaries, Sutekh the Destroyer, last representative of an alien race named the “Osirians”. Sutekh was a megalomaniac who regarded all life as his enemy and had devoted himself to wiping it out, like a living version of Fred Saberhagen’s berserker machines. If Sutekh escaped from the tomb in which his fellow Osirians had confined him – it was all over, since the others had long since died and no power except theirs could overcome him. When the Doctor’s human assistant asks, “Not even your lot? The Time Lords?” the Doctor answers dryly, “Not even my lot.”)
Even if he began as a Libyan deity, Set became one of the most important and powerful Egyptian gods at a very early period. He was recognized as the Lord of Upper Egypt (the south), with Nubt (the golden) as his sacred city. At least one very early Pharaoh, Peribsen of the Second Dynasty (28th century BCE, well before the Pyramids of Giza were built) went so far as to abandon his formal Horus name (Hor Sekhemib; Horus is Powerful of Heart) and take a Set name instead (Set Peribsen; He Who Comes Forth by the Will of Set). The change is so significant that it has led Egyptologists to create all kinds of theories to explain it, including a religious revolution during Peribsen’s reign. Maybe it was nothing so far-reaching. It’s very possible that Peribsen effectively ruled Upper Egypt only, which was from time immemorial Set’s domain. Maybe Peribsen called on Set for help during a crucial campaign, received it, won, and showed his appreciation by taking that deity’s name – as his purely personal patron.
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