The Set Paradox and Historical Fiction

But what is truth? … We both have truths, are mine the same as yours? [Pontius Pilate, Jesus Christ Superstar]

I confess I was a bit at a loss as to what to start off with here, particularly because I feel I’m very much in danger of completely spoiling the rest of The God’s Wife to those of you who might still be working your way through it (bless you) by giving too many details about my current work with the sequel — or spoiling that whole book in my enthusiasm. Until I decided (in a very roundabout way) to answer the number one question I’ve been asked over the last year. Which is, essentially: How much of this [The God’s Wife] is true?

Now, I have half a dozen compact answers to this (“More than you’d think”, “Everything before Chapter Forty”…), but the real deal is expectedly a little more complicated than that. And that’s when I realized I had the perfect avatar for this discussion in the person of everyone’s favorite Lord of Chaos, Set heqa-kapu (King of Fiends).

[Set: Hai, mortals. Behold, I have migrated from your VisageScroll to this location!]

Anyway, as I allude to through several characters, Set’s mythological history is considerably more knotty than the average modern person’s understanding of Egyptian cosmology (if any). In a literary world constantly on the hunt for another new “angle” for every story, this is particularly surprising to me, especially considering that Egyptian mythology is never very far out of vogue. Be it Tomb Raider: The Last Revelation, Rick Riordan’s Kane Chronicles, or …sigh… The Gods of Egypt, Set’s stock remains low in the pop culture zeitgeist. [Full disclosure: I haven’t read any of the Kane books, but I have a basic grounding in the synopses, which might be missing some nuance aside from I know Set is a controlled antagonist, if not the main series villain. I do trust Riordan to have done his homework even if he appears to have mostly followed traditional lines for Set.]

There are a few likely reasons for this devotion to Set’s denigration, some older than others. The main being the continued importance of Egypt’s Osiris cycle of myths to our collective anthropological subconscious. The dimly-recalled myth of a good king unjustly murdered, mourned by a sky mother-goddess (or goddesses), who must descend into the underworld and be resurrected is so deeply imbedded in our human DNA that a dizzying number of separate civilizations tell this same story (Inanna and Dumuzid in Sumer, Osiris and Isis in Egypt, Aphrodite/Venus and Adonis in Greece/Rome, Frigg and Baldr in the Norse world, and the resurrection of Christ are just the most commonly cited versions). Indeed, at least some of Christianity’s relatively smooth adoption in many parts of Northern Africa and the Middle East was due to the Easter story not being wholly unfamiliar to an early evangelical audience. Isis was always a shapeshifting goddess and it was no more difficult for her to don the simple veil of Mary as the new Queen of Heaven than it had been to hide in Venus’ stola in Rome following Egypt’s defeat at Actium. One of the Virgin’s loveliest epithets — Stella Maris, Star of the Sea — recalls Isis’ connection to Sopdet, the Egyptian personification of the star Sirius, the sailors’ polestar. In short, when large swaths of humanity still identify with the Slain God Osiris in some way, it is hard to make one’s way when you are the murderer as Set is, Miltonian massaging aside.

But it wasn’t always this way for Set of the Wild Acacias. As Baktka reminds Arsinoë in Chapter Two, one of Set’s oldest cosmic functions was as a protector of Ra, and by extension, all of life. For without the sun, the king of heaven, the world would be plunged into eternal darkness, personified by the snake demon Apep (Apophis). Part of Set’s duality is that he is the god of chaos, both in the sense that he is an agent of disorder and the one who can subdue it. In this he is closer to the Norse Loki or the Akan Anansi than Satan. And his worship reflects this. In Upper Egypt in places like Ombos, far from the fertile Nile delta, where the desert holds much more sway, Set was always more respected. While his cult had many ebbs and flows throughout Egypt’s long history, his last zenith was probably during the 19th/20th Dynasties (1292 BC – 1077 BC), which to give you a grounding in the timeline was over a thousand years before the birth of Arsinoë (born sometime between 68 BC and 59 BC). The greatest rulers of these dynasties were Ramses II, Ramses III, and the second Ramses’ father, Seti I, whose name literally means “Man of Set” or “He Who Belongs to Set.” All three of these pharaohs are depicted in art with Set, especially in the context shown below, where Set (right) and his nephew Horus (left) give their support to the king (here, Ramses III). In the Osiris cycle, these gods are primarily antagonists, with Horus as the avenger of his father Osiris’ murder at Set’s hands. But there is another side to the gods often referred to collectively as the Kheniu — the Fighter Gods: they fight each other, but they also fight for Egypt and hold it in balance.

So, what happened? Obviously there are a lot of factors, but one of them undoubtedly was repeated invasions into Egypt from a number of southern civilizations like Hyksos and Nubia, some of whom ruled Egypt for intermittent periods of its history. These foreign rulers often had affinity for desert deities and many even worshipped Set, which started to cause the Red Lord to be associated with alien oppressors. There is even some evidence that Set originally was a foreign deity that had been absorbed into Egypt thousands of years before this and in some ways he was simply returning to his spiritual roots. Either way, this made all the more sense that Egypt began to align itself more definitively with Osiris, Isis, and Horus, which in turn led to Set’s vilification as the murderer of Osiris and the enemy of Horus, the god of Egypt’s native pharaohs. His early duality faded into the forgotten past to the point that sometimes his name and that his former adversary Apophis (Apep) were used interchangeably as a byword for evil. And that’s essentially where we remain today. Set is a Bad Guy (and if you believe The Gods of Egypt, Scottish), and needs to be defeated like a video game final boss.

And what does this have to do with historical fiction, a niche genre less popular than fantasy/sci-fi and much less lucrative than romance or YA? I think it’s in these sort of cracks that historical fiction can shine because it’s a genre where one can really explore alternate lenses on the past and maybe that’s why Set has been languishing in his banishment waiting for someone to tell a little of his side of the story. In this, he’s the perfect god for Arsinoë IV, a resourceful rebel who remains largely unknown to modern audiences because she’s 1) the loser of one of history’s losers (Cleopatra, who suffers from her own malignancies at the hands of her victors), and also like her older sister, 2) is a woman. Most narratives dismiss Arsinoë as a teenage brat who only got as far as she did on the shoulders of men (Achillas, Ganymedes, even her brother Ptolemy) and as no match for Cleopatra’s wits or wiles. But this doesn’t quite fit events unless you believe her to be extremely lucky (and what Ptolemy could be described as that?). Eventually at the feet of a triumphant Rome and her vengeful sister, stripped of all of her male cohorts, the youngest Ptolemy princess changes her own destiny. That doesn’t sound like the imprint of a sniveling child and it was the part of her story that first drew me to her (watching a History Channel show in 2014, before they would’ve explained this away with extraterrestrial intervention). But lest you think I’m submerged in my pro-Arsinoë biases, The God’s Wife is primarily a novel of characters whose reputations have changed as often and wildly as Set’s, whether we’re talking about Arsinoë or Cleopatra, or that prince of cats, Caesar himself. Everyone’s got an agenda when it comes to Julius, and some of the (too-copious — apologies in advance…) ink I’ve spilled in the upcoming sequel is devoted exploring his duality, much of which was already in furious debate before his knife-riddled body was cold. And what did that mean for the people he left in his wake as he ceased to be Gaius Julius Caesar and became the Divus Julius, the Divine Father Caesar?

In short, the real answer to how much of The God’s Wife is true is, like most of history, very much in the eye of the beholder. Arsinoë Philoaígyptos: pawn or heroine? Cleopatra Thea Philopator: simpering siren or master strategist? Julius Caesar: tyrant or visionary genius? Set: the Slayer of Apep or the Slayer of Osiris? As Arsinoë remarks in regards to the beauty, or lack thereof, of her sister, the way of truth is the path somewhere in between, I think.

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