As promised in the last entry, this week we’re going to do a little more storytelling. But instead of a retelling of an old Egyptian myth, I’m going to share with you an entirely new myth I wrote as part of the larger God’s Wife narrative, namely, my interpretation of the origins of Set’s fantastical avatar, the sha, or Set-beast. As I also alluded to previously, while I had a lot of fun dreaming up a fable within my version of the Egyptian pantheon, this tale didn’t quite work out where I had it in Daughter of Eagles, but it still seems like a shame to leave it in the proverbial drawer. So, here it is as a scrap that will either whet everyone’s appetite for the next book, or fill you all with foreboding:
Now, everyone knows the gods of Egypt by their animal familiars, the ones they wear as hoods above their faces. But this was not always so. Long, long ago, the gods decided amongst themselves to choose these animals from Egypt’s vast menagerie. They sent burly Bes to convey this message to the animals of the land, that they were to meet the gods on the banks of the Nile at Abydos three days hence for the chance to win the favor of a god and be that god’s representation to all the earth. The animals eagerly accepted and counted the days until the meeting.
Set, the treacherous desert god, had gone out into his domain and looked over all of the animals of the Red Land, deciding that the far-flying falcon was his favorite among his many creatures.
‘Sharp-eyed Falcon,’ he said in his deep voice, low as distant thunder, ‘I will choose you for my creature at the great meeting. Do not let yourself be swayed by the pleas of the other gods.’
Falcon agreed, pleased to be chosen in advance by such a powerful deity, and he flew off to hunt in the desert with a light heart. As he was darting here and there he met Cobra slithering along in the dusty sand. They chatted amiably for a time, until Falcon could not contain his secret any longer and he told Cobra of Set’s promise, boasting of having nothing to fear from the fierce competition of the meeting. Cobra congratulated Falcon on his good fortune, and he preened his feathers a bit more before the two parted ways.
Cobra snaked her way about the desert until she happened to meet Isis playing with her son Horus in the shade of a palm tree. They too exchanged pleasantries — and because everyone knows snakes are the very worst secret keepers — Cobra breathlessly told Isis of what Falcon had said to her about Set’s plan to choose him at the great meeting. Now, Isis had wanted Falcon to be her son’s familiar, so she waited for Cobra to go on her way before falling into scheming about how to steal the desert bird away from his lord. She thought for a long time before setting out to gather her resources.
Isis went to see her sister, Nephthys, Set’s wife, and asked her to tend to Horus for her. While Nephthys was bending over her nephew, Isis plucked a hair from her sister’s head, causing the goddess to yelp.
‘Dear sister,’ she exclaimed, “Why do you pull my hair from my head?’
Isis admitted her plan to trick her sister’s husband into a trap that would prevent him from going to the great meeting with the animals.
The Silent Lady laughed at her sister. ‘Oh, dearest sister, you know Set and I are not on terms at the moment. You do not need to acquire by stealth that which I will happily give you!’
With that, Nephthys plucked out a few more of her hairs and gave them to her sister. These in hand, Isis brewed a magic potion that allowed her to take on her sister’s appearance. Nephthys also gave Isis her magic basket to wear on her head, and the disguised goddess went out to find Set.
The desert god was preparing for the great meeting when suddenly he saw his beautiful wife appearing out of the sand like a mirage. It had been so long since she had come to him that even clever Set did not question this vision, and he ran out to meet her. Nephthys is spoken of as the shadow of Isis, but when it suits her, she is capable of being the most radiant of all ladies. For it is she who paints the glow of peace upon the dead, and she is the mistress of the inner light. Isis knows this, and this is the image of her sister she wore for Set.
‘Dearest husband,’ said the disguised Isis in her sister’s lovely, quiet voice. ‘It is silly for us to quarrel so, for we are made for one another. I wish for us to lay aside the past and be together once more.’
Set was beside himself with joy and embraced his supposed wife. ‘So long have I waited for you to come home, my wife! Let us go together to my halls and celebrate!’
‘With great happiness I would follow you anywhere, O Thundering Prince,” she demurred, “but Lord Ra’s disk is high in the heavens, and our lands are so very hot. Look, I see a cave yonder. Let us take shelter from the heat of the day.’
To this, too, the Red Lord agreed, perhaps hoping for an amorous dalliance with his secretive lady. They went to the cave, and Isis stuck her head in hesitantly. ‘My lord, it is very dark inside,’ she said. ‘Could you go first and make sure there are no demons lying in wait for us?’
Set, no doubt wishing for an opportunity to show Nephthys that he was still the king of all demon-slayers, hurried into the cave conjuring a great orb of fire to light his way, which illuminated the whole cavern. Meaning that he had just enough time to see Nephthys transform into Isis and seal the entrance with a magic rock. Set raced to the stone, hurling curses at Isis, but the goddess only laughed at her brother, and left him to stew in her trap. The desert god spent all night and all of the next day trying to find the counter-curse to his sister’s spell, but to no avail. He was a prisoner in his own realm.
While Set was so entombed, the day of the great meeting had arrived, and everyone arrived in Abydos with much joy. The two groups talked amongst themselves, and soon the pairing off began. Cobra found herself chosen by Iaret, the goddess of Lower Egypt, while the goddess’ sister Nekhbet chose Vulture. Isis and Nephthys, a pair in so many things, both chose Kite, but Isis also chose Sparrow, so Kite has a special affinity for Nephthys. On and on the choosing went, until only a handful of animals remained, but none were as stricken by their ill fortune as Falcon. He looked around for Set, but the god was nowhere to be found.
Feigning surprise and concern, Isis sidled over to him. ‘Dear Falcon, it is unimaginable that you have not been chosen! Why have you held back? You’ve barely put your face forward!’
‘O wise goddess,’ he replied in dismay, ‘Lord Set promised that he would choose me, so I have waited for him. But he is not here!’
Isis clicked her tongue. ‘Well, you know how unreliable Set can be. I would not hang much from his promises.’ She paused dramatically as if hitting upon an idea. ‘Dear Falcon, I’ve just realized that my beloved Horus has not been able to choose an animal of his own due to his tender years. I would be honored if you would agree to be his symbol before the people!’
Falcon hesitated, not wanting to disappoint Set. But he saw the sad collection of unchosen animals, and he didn’t want to suffer their fate. He had his pride to maintain, after all. ‘I accept your generous offer, my lady!’ announced Falcon, and from that day forth, falcons were the sacred charge of Horus.
While all of this was occurring, Set was of course still attempting to free himself from the cave. Isis was a great sorceress, so the spell was very powerful, but Set was also a great wielder of the ancient magic of the gods. He conjured every heka he could think of to erase the binding spell on the rock, yet he remained trapped.
The god had thought he was alone in the cave, but he was mistaken, for a family of desert ants were there as well. When they heard their lord’s distress, they crawled through a tiny crack in Isis’ seal and went off in search of help. They crossed the hot sand until they met Aardvark on his way to the great meeting. They were afraid to ask him for assistance, fearing that they would be eaten, but eventually their devotion to Set overrode their trepidation.
‘Excuse us, Aardvark,’ they said in their shrill ant voices, ‘we need your help!’
Aardvark laughed. ‘Ants asking an anteater for help! Now truly that is something not seen every day!’
His hilarity died away quickly when the ants explained their mission to him, and he agreed to follow them to where Set was imprisoned. Unable to think of any plan, Aardvark glumly studied the magic rock blocking the cave. He saw the small crack the ants had used to escape, and probed it with his long, thin tongue. It turns out Isis had used a spell that could only be broken by moisture, thinking water to be the one element Set would not have in his own lands. So when Aardvark’s tongue grazed the crack, the heka was destroyed, and rock broke apart as though it were mere pottery. Finally free, Set gave Aardvark a pat on the head, and ran off to join the meeting.
He rushed from the cave to Abydos, with Aardvark and the ant family galloping to keep up, arriving just in time to see Falcon proclaimed beloved of his nephew. He glared at Isis who smiled at him and flounced from the gathering triumphant. Looking about as the other gods took their leave, he saw the animals who remained, and even his devious heart was moved to pity.
‘All of you remain unchosen?’ he asked solicitously.
They nodded, and Wolf spoke for them all. ‘Yes, King of the Desert Winds. We must have been born under unlucky stars, for the other animals were deemed worthier than us.’
An idea came to Set. ‘Friends, the other gods will not let me take you all as my familiars, but if you will allow me to borrow a bit of each of you, I will create a new animal to take as my symbol so that you will not be left out.’
The remaining animals gratefully accepted, and the god began to weave a creation heka between his clever fingers. He took Greyhound’s sleek body, and joined it with Antelope’s long legs and Wild Dog’s swift feet. He took Desert Ass’ elegant head, and put Asp’s almond eyes and Fennec Fox’s flared ears on it. He took Giraffe’s stiff tail and Wolf’s proud heart, and sculpted his creature until it leapt from heka for all to see.
Set reached down and stroked the newborn creature’s head affectionately. ‘You are Sha, and you were born of all the animals of the desert. I have brought you to life to give justice to my animal subjects and to confound the simple brains of Men.’ The sha whisked its tail with pleasure, dancing on its tapered paws.
All of the animals were pleased except for Aardvark, who sat off to one side in his disappointment. He had hoped that although he was not fast, or strong, or beautiful, Set might choose him as a reward for his help in getting the god out of Isis’ trap.
Set turned from the others and flashed his sharp, white smile at Aardvark. ‘Ah, my poor Aardvark. You think I have forgotten you?’ he said, laughing as the anteater perked up his floppy ears. ‘No, my friend, for you I have reserved the greatest honor of all…’
Set waved his hand and produced his animal hood, a perfect replica of the sha’s head. The god of disorder took the nose of the sha’s face, and pulled it into an imitation of Aardvark’s nose at the end of Desert Ass’ face. He assessed his work with satisfaction and place the hood over his head. Aardvark beamed with pleasure as the other animals congratulated him.
Lastly, Set bent down to address the ant family. ‘Ants, without you I could not have escaped the clutches of my scheming sister. I have rewards for you also, with my thanks.’ He passed his hand over the ants, causing them to turn from black to red. ‘I mark you with the color of my land, and I give you stingers with venom to protect you from those who would do you harm.’
So this is how some say the curious sha came to be, and why some of the ants in Egypt are the biting fire ants that plague us in the Red Lands of Set the Deceiver.